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Wichita police hear call to arms on gangs

By Roy Wenzl
The Wichita Eagle, Kan.

WICHITA, Kan. — The killing of Robert Ridge has prompted sad, sometimes bitter, discussions about murder, gangs, race and young black men.

At Northwest High School, mentor Buddy Shannon pleaded with at-risk boys to reject the gangs that so badly damage black families.

Mayor Carl Brewer nearly choked up as he denounced gangs in his State of the City address, with Ridge's parents looking on. He called for more police action.

Police commanders, taken aback but eager to support him, huddled to map out new plans.

"That speech was pretty much a call to arms," said Deputy Chief Tom Stolz.

Police say Ridge, an innocent 19-year-old with a future, was killed by a gang member who thought Ridge had given him a look he didn't like at a stoplight.

Felecia Norris is a black woman, sometimes a victim of racism, and the police captain who commands North Patrol. It was her SCAT team officers who raced to the scene of Ridge's death. She also helped coax her 120 police officers to reach out to at-risk children. Ninety of them now mentor or read to or buddy around with children in schools, clubs and neighborhoods.

The worst possible outcome of all the talk will be if the talk stops, she said.

And it usually stops, she said.

"And then somebody else dies," she said.

Robert Ridge's death

Police Sgt. Brian White stood shivering in bitter cold Wednesday night at the intersection where Ridge died.

"That's the light where Robert Ridge stopped," he said, pointing a gloved hand at the stoplight at Hillside and Murdock.

"Here's where he pulled over," White said, pointing down at his feet, to the northeast corner curbing of Lorraine and Murdock. "He looked behind him for his friends, who had been following him."

When he stopped his car, the shooter's car pulled up beside him.

"And shots were fired," White said.

White stuck a gloved finger into his own neck.

"He was shot here, and was choking up blood," White said. "He knew which way the hospital was, so he backed up to turn around. He got his car stuck."

"By the time I got here, his friends had pulled him out of the car and driven him to the hospital," White said. "I went there. He could barely talk. His friends... his friends were, needless to say, very distraught."

Gangbangers, even when one of their friends gets killed, act disrespectfully and turn away from cops, White said. But Ridge's friends were not gangbangers. They gave police clear, accurate descriptions of the shooter's car, which quickly led to an arrest.

White drove away from Murdock and Lorraine now.

Did this killing upset him more than others?

After all, Ridge was young and bright. Killed by stupidity.

"It didn't upset me more than the others, because they're all bad," White said, staring into the dark.

"Nobody deserves this."

Reaching at-risk kids

Hours earlier, at Northwest High School, a black ex-crack-cocaine addict named David Gilkey directed 25 black students into the bleachers beside the school's indoor pool. Amid the bitter smell of chlorine, he gave a bitter speech. He held up a copy of that morning's paper, pointed to a photo of Mayor Brewer.

"How many of y'all saw this?

"The mayor said they are coming after you.

"They FED UP now!" he said. "And do you know why?"

Gilkey has talked to gang wannabes in schools for years. He is usually more polite.

Not today. He spoke with anger, said he'd talked to Ridge's family. "That boy choked on his own blood," Gilkey said. "Blood everywhere."

Gilkey motioned to another black man sitting nearby, Buddy Shannon. Shannon is 47, a successful man with a wife and four daughters and 30 years in the Wichita work force; he supervises 60 people at a landscape company, and mentors at-risk children for a new group called Real Men, Real Heroes.

Until age 23, Shannon was a drug user who sometimes took the risks that came with that life. One night, he told the boys, he slept in his bed with a shotgun on the floor because men from that life had told him they were coming to kill him.

It's not just racism that holds down black achievement anymore, he said. Black men now damage their own families, their own people. He's tired of the excuses he hears about it.

"Why is it that when a white dude kills a black dude, we are so willing to call in Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and do protests?" Shannon said.

"But black dudes killing black dudes all the time, and we shrug. Why? I'll tell you why. We don't value ourselves."

He pleaded with the boys to value their lives, their families and their race.

Gilkey stepped forward again.

"Because of gangs, because of drugs, because of crime, people in our race are dying way quicker than anybody's dying in any other race," he said. "Why? Why do we kill each other? And for what? For a look? That boy Robert Ridge died for a look?"

Gilkey leaned forward.

The boys leaned forward, stone-silent, staring at a man who looked tense and angry.

"How many of you on probation?" he demanded.

Three of the 25 held up hands. Gilkey jabbed a finger at the nearest. "What happens if you get caught violating?"

The boy answered inaudibly.

"Say again! Louder!"

"Six months," the boy said.

"Six months in jail you get caught," Gilkey said.

"I spent four years in prison," Gilkey told them. "You think you're tough, if you in a gang. But there ain't no sound more final than the sound of a two-ton iron door bang shut so loud behind you that everybody in the prison can hear it. I lost everything in prison, even my name. My name in prison was 54958. I earned 75 cents a day cleaning other men's dirty socks and doing other nasty jobs. That is where you are headed, you stay on this course.

"You stay in gangs, you gonna be killed or locked up."

'You're not welcome'

A day earlier, before an audience and TV cameras, Brewer began to deliver his State of the City Address. He had many times rehearsed the annual speech, written this year mostly by city spokesman Van Williams.

In the audience, Williams looked around, saw the parents of Robert Ridge.

Brewer saw them, too.

He began speaking in an upbeat tone about aviation, the city, economic possibilities.

Fourteen pages later, he came to the gang section. It had been written days before Ridge died. In practice, the mayor had breezed through it without emotion. But with Ridge's parents looking at him, Brewer spoke with sudden, strong emotion.

"I have a stern message for the street gangs," he began. "You've preyed on our most vulnerable kids for far too long."

Brewer's face tightened.

"Your reign of terror over youth, their parents and our neighborhoods is coming to an end," he said.

People, staring at Ridge's family, stood up and applauded loudly. Brewer had to pause.

"Leave our kids alone," he continued. "Leave our neighborhoods. You're not welcome in our city."

Police anti-gang efforts

In the audience, Stolz, the deputy police chief, listened to the applause, to the challenge in the mayor's words. He was suddenly aware that he had new work to do.

"He pretty much drew a line in the sand," Stolz said. "We knew we had to do everything we could to back him up."

Within hours, Stolz and top police commanders were reviewing the gang war.

Only a few months before, Jeff Easter, one of Stolz's lieutenants, had overseen the biggest assault on gangs in Wichita's history, using months of covert intelligence, surveillance and community outreach to round up Crips leaders. Police arrested dozens, charging many under the federal anti-racketeering act.

That sweep was old news now, with Ridge dead and the mayor demanding more action. Stolz pondered new plans. Every idea, including beefing up the gang unit, was now under review.

Stolz was aware of how this might play out among black Wichitans.

There are many people working hard to keep the Robert Ridges of the world alive, Stolz said.

"There's this new group (Real Men, Real Heroes)," Stolz said. "Black businessmen and ministers and others, and I've worked with 90 percent of them, and they are the real deal. They've told us anything they can do to help, they will do it. There are churches, other people doing great work."

But some people, when disputes arise, accuse the police of unfairness, racial profiling and racism, Stolz said.

He understands why some people regard police with suspicion. Some cops make mistakes. "The officers become so overwhelmed with emotion from their encounters with victims that they become desensitized to victims, or they become too demanding with suspects," Stolz said.

"But there is also another kind of unfairness that doesn't get talked about enough.

"There is a terrible unfairness in the fact that if you are a black parent in this country, your child is much more likely to be murdered, or become the victim of a larceny, or become the victim of some other crime. The police department's job, regardless of who is killing whom, should be to make all people feel equally safe, no matter the color of their skin."

'Never again'

After his speech, Brewer met with Ridge's parents.

"What can you possibly say to someone who has lost a child, and lost a child to such a stupid, stupid reason for a shooting?" he said later. "This young man, this innocent young man, was murdered for no reason, by someone who did not care. And when these children are killed in our city, to me now, they are not just someone else's children. I feel like they are my children."

He nearly choked up again as he faced Ridge's parents.

"I'm sorry," he said.

He felt awkward. Saying "sorry" wasn't enough.

So he spoke a promise.

"I promised them that we will do everything in our power to try to make sure this never happens to anyone else's child," Brewer said. "Never again."

The danger of apathy

Norris, the North Patrol captain, knows too well the apathy that might kill that promise.

"Think about it," she said. "The murder of that young man should have galvanized every mother in this city, should have brought them out to say that this stops now. But that's not what we see."

Night after night, weekend after weekend, putting in hours way beyond her workweek, Norris and other officers from North Patrol meet with residents, asking for help, asking them to help their own children, asking them to call police.

But with all of that, she hears apathy, suspicion, cynicism. People shunning or disparaging the department she works for. She's heard the word:


She knows it herself.

Any time you want to see racism, she said, all you have to do is show up as a black woman in a store, out of uniform, wearing the sweat suit she wears to clean her house. And soon you turn around, as she has, and speak to the white store clerk watching over you, watching because he assumes a black woman in a store aisle is a shoplifter:

"If I need your help in this aisle, I'll ask you for it."

The racism she encountered when she moved here from California years ago was in-your-face.

"But contrary to what some people think," Norris said, "police officers are nearly always trying to do the right thing."

Among 350,000 people in Wichita, only 600 are police officers.

They are trying to keep the Robert Ridges of the world alive. And they get good help, she said, from some groups. Like Stolz and the mayor, she mentioned Real Men, Real Heroes, which puts successful black men into schools and neighborhoods to mentor kids. She mentioned St. Mark United Methodist, and its program founded by the Rev. Junius Dotson.

But there are not enough Real Men or Junius Dotsons, she said.

The death of a Robert Ridge usually gets people talking for only a few days.

Then the talking stops.

Copyright 2008 The Wichita Eagle

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