Police unit tracks gang activity

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Ted Sullivan
Sunday, February 1, 2009
— Two teens had been exchanging threatening text messages for hours when they decided to settle it with a fistfight.

Each brought friends to the Janesville YMCA parking lot that Jan. 19, 2008, night. When the groups met, somebody yelled, "Ready," and gunfire blasted.

"It happened so fast," Darrell Jackson, then 18, testified at a preliminary hearing. "We all started running toward the cars."

Jackson was shot in the leg, and two teens accused of firing handguns were members of a gang, investigators said.

The incident—Janesville's first gang-related shooting in years—helped convince the police department to form a special unit to track gang activity.

Since then, officers have identified five or six gangs in Janesville and 50 to 75 known gang members, Sgt. Jim Holford said.

Police estimate 257 criminal reports in 2008 involved gang members, although police said some incidents were not motivated by gang activity.

For example, a teen gang member fought with a middle school student who picked on his younger brother. The incident was reported as gang related, but it was really a bullying issue.

But gang-related incidents often involve crimes such as graffiti and battery or drugs and damage to property.

Gang-related activity has only been tracked for one year, Holford said, and it's hard to know whether gangs are gaining a foothold in Janesville.

But the city doesn't have a gang problem, although it has its challenges, he said. Gangs could become a greater problem if they're ignored.

Tracking gangs

In May, two rival gangs had a confrontation. One gang member pointed a sawed-off shotgun toward another gang member.

Police were able to arrest everyone involved in the incident, partly because the gang unit had gathered intelligence on the two gangs, officer Mike Blaser said.

A handful of patrol officers work in the gang unit. They are assigned to track gang activity in the city.

Officers gather intelligence on gangs and learn about members and leaders.

They reach out to gang members, parents, teachers and school counselors to learn about gang activity, officer Aaron Ellis said.

The unit identifies gang members under specific criteria, including colors, hand signs or tattoos, Blaser said. Officers learn about gang members' nicknames, signatures and graffiti style.

The goal is to get to know gang members, Officer Chad Pearson said.

They have learned that many gangs come to Janesville from cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee, Rockford or Madison, Blaser said. Other gangs form here after copying outside groups.

People join for various reasons, he said.

They might be trying to fit in, Blaser said. Others might be born into the gang.

Are gangs a threat?

The public perception of Janesville's gangs varies widely, Blaser said.

Some residents think gangs are not a threat, while others believe they're a serious problem, he said.

Gangs have a membership of about 10 to 40 members, Pearson said, and they're all capable of growing.

Gang members are of every race. They're rich, poor, old and young, Blaser said. They live in every part of the city.

Familiar gangs such as the Latin Kings, Gangster Disciples and Bloods are in Janesville, Holford said. Other gangs might be smaller and unknown to the public.

Gangs could be rivals or confrontational, depending on whether they disrespect one another, Blaser said.

Most gang problems involve graffiti, but gangs are capable of violence and drug activity, Holford said. Police have not confirmed that gangs are involved in drug-dealing conspiracies.

Officers are aware of initiation rituals a person must undergo to join a gang, Holford said.

A man might have to take a beating or commit a crime to join, while a woman might have to sleep with gang members, Holford said.

Shooting suspect convicted

After the YMCA shooting, Jackson was treated at Mercy Hospital for a gunshot wound. The bullet went into his leg and out the other side. He was hit near his knee.

A bullet was found in the flat tire of one of the cars in the parking lot, and another bullet hole was found in the wheel well of a separate car.

Four suspects were arrested and charged as adults, but charges were dismissed against all but one.

Andrew D. Moronez, 17, of 1042 Center Ave., Janesville, pleaded guilty in May 2008 to first-degree recklessly endangering safety stemming from the shooting.

He was sentenced to six months in jail and five years probation.

Last updated: 9:45 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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