2019 Newsmaker of the Year: Youth seeking self worth are vulnerable to New Bedford gang ‘families’

NEW BEDFORD — The city made national news earlier this month when the FBI raided houses in the near North End as part of “Operation Throne Down,” a multi-state operation targeting members of the Latin Kings gang.

Twenty-two of the over 60 members of the Latin Kings identified and charged in the operation were part of a New Bedford Chapter of the gang, according to affidavit written by FBI Special Agent Dominic Coppo, and had been operating out of numerous apartment buildings in the city’s North End, distributing controlled substances and actively engaging in “fights, feuds, shootings, attempted murder, and open brawls.”

The national spotlight, along with the descriptions of the gang’s violent activity, brought renewed attention to the presence of both national and neighborhood gangs in New Bedford.

In 2018, the New Bedford Police Department confirmed 19 active gangs with 505 “validated” gang members in the city, which represented a 17% increase over 2017, according to a report from the Charles E. Shannon Community Safety Initiative (Shannon).

Shannon is a fund through the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security that is awarded to communities that “demonstrate the presence of risk factors for youth and gang violence.”

When asked about the increase in gang members from 2017 to 2018 New Bedford Police Chief Joseph Cordeiro said, “There are a few variables that would play into that, us being more efficient and effective in validating (gang members), and a combination of people from outside the city moving in, and just some newer members that joined.”

 

As for how the numbers compare to years past overall, Cordeiro said, “We’ve seen cycles, we had a really sizeable sweep with the Latin Kings and as we’ve just seen with the DEA, that should influence the cycle so we should likely see a decrease especially if they go down for federal sentences.”

The DEA sweep Cordeiro was referring to occurred on Dec. 5 and resulted in eight men from New Bedford being indicted on drug trafficking charges.

Cordeiro said he wanted to highlight the work of his Police Department and issued the following statement, “Last year the New Bedford Police Dept. has taken 71 guns off the streets and made 232 gang-related arrests. Our officers are committed to ensuring public safety and reducing gang activity throughout the city in partnership with all agencies who receive Shannon funding here in New Bedford and across the state.”

The Shannon report lists the largest gangs in the city in 2018 as the Latin Kings, the United Front/West End gang, Shotgun Crips, Bloods, TeoGang, and the Gangster Disciples.

Reporting from The Standard-Times over the last decade also mentions the Maniac Latin Disciples, the Monte Park or South End gang, and the Ruth Street gang.

Though TeoGang is listed as a gang in the Shannon report, there is some dispute as to whether it is a gang.

Renee Ledbetter, the director of New Bedford Shannon, said, “It’s a group of people that are empathizing with each other about one of the kids that passed away …something they did to commemorate him, so that’s what it was.”

In 2016, 15 year-old Mateo Morales was stabbed to death near the Temple Landing (formerly United Front) Housing Development by members of the Monte Park gang.

When asked if it was a mistake that “TeoGang” was listed as a gang in the 2018 Shannon report, Ledbetter said “I’ve only been the director since August, so I’m not quite sure what was reported.”

Chief Cordeiro said, “We do not have a formalized Mateo gang that we’ve identified here.”

The South End (Monte Park) and West End (United Front) neighborhood gangs have a long-standing rivalry, according to Cordeiro.

“They’ve just lasted generations. We’ve got to be on our third generation of West End, South End gangs,” the chief said, adding that it was “disheartening” because he ventured to guess most members of the groups don’t actually know what started the conflict.

“Why you don’t like somebody only because they’re from a certain part of the city is baffling to me,” said Robert Mendes, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater New Bedford/Wareham. “A lot of kids will just turn around and say I’m part of the West End gang (just because they live in the West End).”

Cordeiro did make a distinction between the neighborhood gangs and national gangs like the Latin Kings saying they “are a homegrown gang, they’re not as voluminous or as sophisticated in many ways, but I think they would fall under the criteria (of a gang).”

In the past community activists, like John “Buddy” Andrade, have fought against the South End and West End groups being identified as gangs.

“Monte Park is a park named after a World War I hero, not a gang,” he told The Standard-Times in 2017. “The Monte Park gang doesn’t exist.”

Following the raid of the Latin Kings, New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said, “New Bedford is a city…. It is a city of 100,000 and like virtually every other, there are gangs…Compared to other places New Bedford is in good shape.”

The statistics for Fall River show that the Spindle City, with a population of 89,420, also has 19 street gangs, but a higher number of gang members at 632.

The Shannon reports list Brockton’s population at 95,672 in 2018, that’s 552 over the listed population for New Bedford, with 18 active gangs and 198 estimated gang members, both lower than New Bedford’s numbers.

Gang members in New Bedford are “validated” by the police and sheriff’s department using a point system, which include different criteria that are worth a certain amount of points, and it takes a minimum of 10 points to be a validated gang member, according to information from the Bristol County House of Correction.

The criteria include four points for observed association, five points for information from a reliable informant, eight points for participation in a publication (e.g. a picture published on social media in which someone is flashing gang signs or wearing gang colors), and 10 points for tattoos or markings.

The system of validating gang members has recently received criticism from Ward 4 City Councilor Dana Rebeiro who said at a City Council meeting last Thursday that based on the criteria, she would have been considered a gang member and that black and brown people are already over-policed and over-prosecuted.

Speaking in response to gang-related motions before the council, Rebeiro said “these are our kids” and “These kids are in gangs because they are hurting.”

Forty one percent, or 207, of the 505 validated gang members in 2018 were under the age of 25, according to the Shannon report.

New Bedford has programs specifically targeting youth who are at high-risk for joining gangs, including two managed by the United Way of Greater New Bedford, New Bedford Shannon and the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative (SSYI).

“A lot of the reasons people get into gangs is because they’re looking for a family, they’re looking for a place to belong, a sense of value, a sense of worth,” Director of New Bedford Shannon, Renee Ledbetter, said.

Ledbetter said they offer intensive case management services for some of the youth they work with and work to educate them on “different life values and try to develop their mindset and help them see that there’s a better future for them.”

They are currently working with 192 youth between the ages of 10 to 24 year old and have successfully moved an additional 100 students into a positive phase where they are doing well academically and socially, according to Ledbetter.

Mendes said the Boys & Girls club is seeing a decline in their membership numbers 14 years and up, which could be attributed to several things like the availability of afterschool activities and can’t necessarily be attributed to gangs.

However, Mendes said, “As someone who has worked in these fields for the last 40 years it’s troubling so see how kids are getting involved in that activity at an alarmingly younger rate.”

Due to the decline in teenage membership, Mendes said, “Now we have to (curtail children from getting involved in gang activity) at an early age, we have prevention programs and life building skills targeting kids that are 7, 8, 9 years old in hopes that they will take those life skills and values and maintain them when they get older.”

Mitch Librett, a criminal justice professor at Bridgewater State University and former New York police officer, explained reasons similar to Ledbetter’s for young people joining gangs. “Young people, coming-of-age teenagers, who are growing up in neighborhoods where there’s a great deal of social marginalization/deprivation, living in a world where there’s still some degree of vestigial racism and ethnic prejudice, they become attracted to some of these gangs because it helps them develop a sense of self esteem/power.”

Another reason people join gangs, according to Librett, is protection in prison.

“Once a person becomes arrested for a serious crime and is sent to a state prison, they find themselves in an atmosphere where it can be dangerous not to have some sort of gang affiliation,” Librett said.

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said, “Prisons are always a place where people can either strengthen their gang ties or try to recruit people in prison … but the thing I think is important for people to know is I have a gang unit inside my facility.”

That gang unit works to identify gang members, classify them, and then house them in the safest place, according to Hodgson.

According to Hodgson 20-25% of the population are involved in gangs, “Our biggest gang is Gangster Disciples and we have 65 members of the Gangster Disciples.”

The Latin Kings are also present in the jail, with 41 members, but according to Hodgson the rivalry between the gangs that exists on the streets of New Bedford doesn’t cause issues in the jail.

“That’s why classification is so important. They’re put in the proper housing units so they’re not in that kind of situation,” Hodgson said.

As for people recruiting for gangs in the jails, Hodgson said, “It’s very difficult for them to do recruiting here because we have staff in there that have their finger on the pulse.”

According to Hodgson, his gang unit shares any information they discover about gang members with local law enforcement.

There is also an effort in the jail to prevent gang members from returning to their gangs once they get out.

Hodgson explained that SSYI funds a case worker that works specifically with gang members to help them develop a re-entry plan with potential places to live and job opportunities that will keep them away from gangs.

As for gangs in New Bedford he said “we do have a serious gang problem that we have to keep addressing and stay on top of … This is not anything new for us, the growing drug problem has exacerbated the problem.”

Ledbetter said, “I think the city’s moving in the right direction. I don’t think it’s any worse than any other city.”

However, there are more steps that could be taken to address the gang problem, Ledbetter said.

“We would have more results if everybody in the community was able to reach out and lift another young person up because they are people just like we are and they are hurting…. Talk to a young person and let them know that they are worth something.”

 

Published by Southcoast Today: https://www.southcoasttoday.com/news/20191222/2019-newsmaker-of-year-youth-seeking-self-worth-are-vulnerable-to-new-bedford-gang-families