By Associated Press
SPRINGFIELD, Tenn. — Gangrelated crimes rose nearly 25 percent across Tennessee in 2011, but much of the illegal activity is happening away from big cities.
Citing statistics from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, The Tennessean reports that the state's small towns are becoming incubators of gang violence.
Since 2005, cities with fewer than 50,000 residents saw gang crime more than triple.
Gangs are becoming problems in places like Springfield, a town of about 16,000 people 30 miles north of Nashville.
In the past two months in Springfield, three suspected gang members were arrested in the armed holdup of a bank, and a 20-year-old man was found dead with a bullet wound to the back of his head near a youth center.
"By and large, the average citizen, I don't think, sees or knows what's really going on," said Springfield police Chief David Thompson.
"There's a lot of people that are just in denial or unaware. If it doesn't impact them directly, they wouldn't know about it. We've reached a space now where you can't ignore what's happening."
But rural towns often have small and sometimes ill-equipped police departments, which can make the communities vulnerable and attractive to young criminals trying to dodge larger cities with more sophisticated gang units. Also, gangs find rural areas to be full of eager, new drug customers and devoid of competition from other gangs. For a while, at least. The FBI's annual National Gang Threat Assessment in 2011 was blunt in its appraisal of gangs' interest in these untapped areas.
"Gang members are migrating from urban areas to suburban and rural communities to recruit new members, expand their drug distribution territories, form new alliances, and collaborate with rival gangs and criminal organizations for profit and influence," the report said.
In Tennessee, gang incidents across the state rose about 110 percent from 2005 through 2011, according to the TBI. But remove larger cities like Nashville and Memphis — often far more associated with gang violence — and the picture is far more troubling.
From 2005 to 2011, cities with fewer than 50,000 residents saw gang crimes rise 232 percent.
"Gangs gravitate to where business is good, typically illegal drugs, illegal weapons and prostitution," said Kristin Helm, spokeswoman for the TBI. "Being in more rural areas, sometimes their criminal activity is less detectable from law enforcement and they aren't competing with a different illegal gang across the street for business."
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Copyright 2012 Associated Press