07/13/2006

Cities grapple with crime by kids

By KEVIN JOHNSON
USA Today

MINNEAPOLIS — Barely 15, the skinny youth from the city's troubled North Side already had a long rap sheet.

His juvenile court record included citations for 19 offenses, dating back three years. Last Thursday, police pulled up beside him with a warrant to arrest him again: He allegedly had violated the terms of his probation from a robbery citation last month by cutting off a leg bracelet that allowed Hennepin County authorities to monitor his whereabouts.

After a chase on foot through a crowded city park, "Killer," one of several aliases the youth uses, was back in handcuffs. "I am a maniac!" he screamed, declaring his affiliation with a local gang. "I am a maniac!"

The fugitive, whose name was not released by police because he is a juvenile, was among eight frequent-offender youths pursued last week by a team of officers from the Minneapolis Police Department, the county Probation Department and the U.S. Marshals Service.

The team was formed last month as part of a crackdown on violent young offenders who represent an increasing problem at a time when crime rates are ticking upward.

RISE IN CRIME
After nearly a decade in which violent-crime rates fell or were stable throughout the USA, the FBI reported last month that there was a 2.5% rise last year in violent crimes, which include homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults.

Here and in cities across the nation — including Washington, Milwaukee and Boston — police are linking the increase to a growing problem: Crime by kids as young as 10, many of whom have been recruited by gangs.

Budget cuts may be factor
The reasons for rising crime among juveniles are complex.

Tight local budgets and reduced federal funding for police, along with new anti-terrorism duties, have stretched police departments and led to cuts in community programs for youths. Historically low crime rates in recent years often have been linked to a booming economy. Now, with the economy slowing, officials in several cities are tying poverty and financial uncertainty to rising crime, particularly among juveniles.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett says 41% of the children in his city are in households in which the annual income is below the federal poverty line, about $20,000 for a family of four. "A lot of young people have no hope in their lives," Barrett says, and many "think nothing of carrying a gun."

"We have a lot of young people involved in robbery," Milwaukee Deputy Police Chief Brian O'Keefe says. "Some are 10 and 11. A lot of the kids we see never know anything but violence."

Many officials, including Boston police Superintendent Paul Joyce, say the release of thousands of felons who were imprisoned during drug crackdowns in the 1990s also has become a significant factor in boosting juvenile crime.

Joyce says just-released gang members, seeking to stake out turf without getting arrested again, have recruited juveniles to carry weapons for them or make drug deliveries. Earlier this year, Joyce says, Boston police found a 13-year-old boy with a handgun, standing with a 23-year-old gang member.

"The young kids don't think about the consequences of their actions," Joyce says.

"We have videotapes of young children working as mules for gang members," says Tom Cochran, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The group has hosted two summits during the past year to discuss the gang problem and plans to examine juvenile violence when it meets in September.

Juveniles "are carrying the guns and the drugs for the gang leaders so (the leaders) can avoid prosecution," Cochran says. "This is a major problem."

In Minneapolis, police began looking for "Killer" early last week, after he removed the leg bracelet. Keeping the bracelet on was a condition of the youth's probation, Hennepin County probation officer Mick Sandin says. The group that rounded up the fugitive youths represents an effort to reduce a backlog of 500 juvenile arrest warrants that grew after budget cuts forced the closure of the police department's Juvenile Division in 2001. The division was re-established in May.

"Before now, the pursuit of juveniles had not been a high priority," says police Lt. Bryan Schafer, who heads the Juvenile Division. "That created a perception that nothing much happens to juveniles" who commit crimes. "So (adult gang members) began sending the kids out to carry their guns, because they knew nothing would happen to them. We think we're changing that perception."

Since the fugitive-hunting team began work, many parents and family members of juvenile suspects have been reluctant to provide information to police, says police Sgt. Ron Stenerson, who leads the team.

That wasn't the case with "Killer," however. A concerned family member provided the tip that led to his capture by telling police they should search a park near his home.

Sandin spotted the youth at the park. When Stenerson called his name, the teenager turned toward the officers and then sprinted away. After running about 50 yards, he was hauled down by Deputy U.S. Marshal Justin Payton, who's training for a triathlon.

Witnesses told investigators that the youth had tossed a gun into some tall grass before he was chased, police Lt. Bryan Schafer says. Police found a loaded .38-caliber gun, and are investigating whether it belonged to the youth.

Proliferation of guns
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, noting that the number of juveniles suspected in violent crimes jumped by 18% from 2004 to 2005, says a "shocking proliferation" of guns is partly to blame.

Rybak has recruited local businesses to fill gaps in community programs for young people, from evening recreation events to summer job placements and college tuition assistance. He says the key is "winning back" kids who have drifted into delinquency.

"The issue of hopelessness is what we are addressing."

Related Article:
Police tie jump in crime to juveniles
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