St. Louis police move preventively to curb gang participation

By Steve Giegerich
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS, Mo. Asked to name five people he would turn to in a crisis, the fourth-grader drew a blank after listing the two St. Louis police detectives who had made the request, his doctor and a classmate. What about a parent?

"Oh, yeah," the 9-year-old said. Dutifully, he added "Mom" to his list.

To Lt. Ronnie Robinson, that fourth-grader is much more than another possibly misdirected product of an inner-city neighborhood. He's also an incubator.

"I'll guarantee you when that kid steps outside his door, he sees a gang, and I'll also guarantee that those gang members are already monitoring him," said Robinson, head of the St. Louis Police Department's Crime Suppression Unit. "And if no one does anything about that situation, the older he gets, the more pressure they'll put on him to join."

As it happens, someone is doing something:

Starting last year, teams of city police officers have fanned into St. Louis' elementary and middle schools in an effort to prevent kids from joining the estimated 5,000 young people across the region who claim membership in a street gang.

In nearly every way, the fourth-grader represents the target of the Gang Resistance Education and Training program or GREAT. He's nearing the recruiting age for many gangs, he seems to trust friends over family, and he is susceptible to outside forces.

On the day the boy listed the two police officers by name as lifelines in a time of trouble, the young man had seen the detectives, William Triplett and Thomas Muldrow, precisely twice in his life.

Reaching out

Assigned to the juvenile division, Triplett and Muldrow entered that fourth-grade classroom at Sigel Elementary School, 2050 Allen Avenue, with a singular objective: to get into the young man's psyche before he becomes prey for a gang.

Their guide in that mission is the nationally recognized program that combines character education with strong messages about self-esteem and trust through weekly visits by police officers to classrooms.

"We try to get across that if you join a gang, you're weak, that you can't act on your own, that you have to be part of a group," said Robinson, who coordinates the program with ARCHS, a child advocacy group that works on behalf of students in St. Louis.

The North County Police Chiefs Association also plan to address gang membership. The organization put the topic on its agenda after the threat of gang violence forced the cancellation of a homecoming bonfire last week at Hazelwood West High School.

"It's important that we put them on notice and let them know we're serious about what we're doing," said Hazelwood Police Chief Carl Wolf.

GREAT, now in its second year in St. Louis, puts 12 city police officers in 15 elementary and middle schools. Last school year, 530 St. Louis students graduated from the program, which has expanded to nearly 50 U.S. cities since starting in Phoenix a decade ago.

To determine its effectiveness, St. Louis organizers plan to track the behavioral patterns of the program's students through high school and into young adulthood.

The snitching issue

Whether it prevents one kid or thousands from succumbing, Robinson says, the program's success will signal a triumph over the lure that gangs have among low-income children as well as the larger competing force of hip-hop culture.

Hip-hop, he points out, may be an affectation for the white, suburban kids who constitute its largest audience. But in urban neighborhoods, it's a lifestyle.

Triplett posed a question about a particularly vexing part of that lifestyle during a visit to a fourth-grade class at Adams Elementary School, 1311 Tower Grove Avenue.

Is snitching good or bad?

With one exception, all the students indicated they wouldn't assist a police investigation of a crime in their neighborhood.

Clearly not the answer they'd hoped for, Triplett and Muldrow took the opportunity to debunk the hip-hop mantra that sharing details of crimes with authorities is an act of betrayal. The resulting fear of retribution has caused many crimes in St. Louis and other urban areas to go unsolved.

Patiently, Triplett explains that a failure to cooperate with police frees criminals to commit further violence, the next time, perhaps, against a friend or loved one.

"I know you hear on the radio that it's bad to snitch and that, if you see something, you shouldn't tell a cop," he said. "But don't let them make you think you're a punk, or soft or weak."

Casting officers in an upbeat, learning environment, said Robinson, is another pre-emptory move against future gang participation by kids whose exposure to police often has been in the context of the arrest of an acquaintance or relative.

To offset the perception that they are the bad guys, Muldrow and Triplett inject themselves into every facet of the presentation. Leading students in a play-acting exercise pitting two bullies against another student, Triplett plays the part of a school bus driver.

"They make it personal, and that's where they make the connection," said Lisa Potts, the director of partnerships for ARCHS.

While St. Louis gangs are pretty much limited to midlevel drug dealers, Robinson said, structurally they tend to emulate the two major West Coast gangs, the Crips and Bloods, along with the Black Gangster Disciples, out of Chicago.

In street language, the decision to join a gang is known as "jumping off the porch."

On average, Robinson said, kids make the leap at age 11.

If, as Triplett says, "at least one thing we teach them sticks in their minds," he hopes today's 9-year-olds will stay put when temptation knocks tomorrow.

'Don't let them make you think you're a punk, or soft or weak.'

Copyright 2007 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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