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Perspectives on gang violence in Janesville

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Mike DuPre'
February 3, 2008
— Street gangs are a fact of life in the United States. Janesville is no exception.

The city so far has been spared the murders, turf wars and organized criminal structures that for decades have plagued cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and New York.


But it was a Janesville gang that lined up along River Street next to the YMCA with black bandannas pulled up to their eyes and opened fire with two pistols on another group of young men Jan. 19.


An 18-year-old Janesville man was wounded in the leg, and police arrested six people—two adults, four juveniles—on charges related to endangering safety with guns.


The confrontation apparently was over a girl, not turf, and one of the juveniles charged as a triggerman told police he shot at a car, not a person, according to the criminal complaints against the adults.


The incident was the most serious gang violence that local cops can recall.


Police acknowledge that the group with the guns was a street gang, but they haven’t identified the targets as gang members.


The Janesville Gazette was unsuccessful in trying to talk suspected gang members or affiliates, but others—parents, students, other young people and police officers—offered their opinions and observations:


Parents, adults

-- “I had no idea, but looking back, I can kind of see it,” said a man involved with the family of one of the suspects. “I guess it was just the people he has been hanging out with, and his behavior has gone downhill since September.”


The man saw no gang colors or graffiti but said the boy and his friends wear baggy pants and straight-rimmed ball caps, sometimes cocked to one side.


“He doesn’t care about school. All he wants to do is hang out with his so-called buddies. ..


“You can tell the kids the difference between right and wrong; you can show them the difference between right and wrong. But whether they apply it away from home is entirely up to them. A child’s friends have more influence on him than his parents,” the man said.


-- “There definitely is a problem,” said the father of a young person mentioned in police reports. “People who don’t think there’s any gang activity in Janesville aren’t thinking correctly.”


Asked if he thought his child was involved in a gang, the father said: “No, but I can’t say for sure. Nobody knows anything for sure. … But you have to look for little things and keep looking. I think with a lot of these kids, their parents aren’t as involved as they should be.”


Young people

-- “Like, when we pulled into the Y(MCA parking lot), they were lined up, and they had bandannas over their faces,” said a young woman who witnessed the shooting.


“I think they’re growing. I know more and more kids are in gangs and at younger ages—14, 15. There’re different levels: the big old leaders and little kids like this who put their lives on the line because they want to be part of gang, because it’s so cool.


“Maybe parents are not involved in their lives so they don’t feel wanted, and so they go to somewhere where they are wanted,” she said


-- “There’s a lot of wannabes,” said a young man who had been shot at.


“When we first got shot at, the first thing I said when we got back in the car is that the guys who shot at us are probably trying to get into a gang,” he said.


-- “There’s not much gang activity at school,” said a senior at Craig High School who is acquainted with the shooting victim. “You see some handshakes, and it’s apparent these people are in gangs by their handshakes. …


“I’m sure there’s more, but it’s not as bad as in Rockford, Ill., and Chicago. But I think that more gang members are coming from south in Illinois and bringing their gang experience with the,” he said.


-- “I don’t really see much of it out of school,” said another Craig senior, “but some kids at our school act like they are affiliated with a gang.


“One group of kids will wear a certain color, and another group will wear a different color because that’s what a gang is supposed to do. They identify themselves as gang members.


“And there’s their general attitude—rowdiness and complete obnoxiousness. They don’t care what you’re doing as long as they get to do what they want and how they want to do it,” he said.


-- “At school, you can definitely pick out the ones in gangs because they dress alike and wear their colors and their little bandannas,” said a third Craig senior. “I know people who say they are in gangs. Most people keep it quiet, but some people flaunt it with tattoos and bandannas.”


Police

“Not all the activity we see in the community is illegal,” Deputy Police Chief David Moore said. “Most of the (illegal) activity we see are groups hanging around neighborhoods that are disorderly, disruptive and intimidating.


“Also we see through our street crimes unit and patrol, drug sales by gang members. Drug sales historically have been part of gang activity.


“We also see disagreements between groups for various reasons. It could be over a girlfriend, school issues or other occurrences. They could develop into fights and property damage.”


But gang violence involving guns in Janesville is rare, so local police can and will devote significant resources to such crimes, he said.


“So the message is that in Janesville, serious gun violence will be investigated with a sense of urgency. Gang members will learn that it will be in their best interest to take their illegal activity somewhere else,” Moore said.


-- “We’ve had organizations call themselves one name, then re-acclimate to another organization,” officer Chad Pearson said of local gang structures.


“Right now, there is no turf war, but graffiti is starting to show like there could be one.”


Unlike gangs in big cities, members here are not usually “beat out” when they want to leave a gang, Pearson said. “They just disassociate themselves. We have had stripping of colors where the gang disassociates itself because someone was not following the rules set by gang structure. …


“People who don’t have family values are most easily assimilated into gangs because they provide structure and meaning to their lives.”


-- “I don’t see a positive,” Sgt. Steve DeWitt said of gang involvement. “Just because you’re associated with a group of like-thinking people isn’t a positive. … This city isn’t a ’hood. There’s no reason to band together for protection.”


The negatives are many: criminal record, time behind bars, lack of education and job skills, loss of family support, he said.


“Look at Janesville. It has a great educational system. Join a gang, and you lose the opportunity to use it and find good employment.”


Go to story: Shooting raises concerns about gang violence

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