Experts question gang involvement in riots

Self-described gang members stand with members of the Baltimore City Council to condemn rioting.
Self-described gang members stand with members of the Baltimore City Council to condemn rioting. (Luke Broadwater / Baltimore Sun)

It was an unusual tableau: Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and his neatly dressed council colleagues stood at a City Hall news conference flanked by two young men wearing the red bandannas associated with the Bloods gang.

At Tuesday's event, Young praised the gang members — and discounted a police report that the Bloods, Crips and Black Guerrilla Family gangs had unified to target officers in the wake of Freddie Gray's recent death in police custody. He said it was "clear that the notion they were planning on harming our police officers is false and simply deterred the resources we needed to focus on the individuals who instigated these riots. I applaud these young men for standing here and speaking out for our city."


Although some city and religious leaders say such gang outreach is essential in a crisis, criminologists have been shocked to see the leaders supporting groups often associated with a drug trade that helps to make Baltimore one of the nation's most violent cities.

While those criminologists also doubted the claim of police officials that gangs were targeting officers, they said the alert was no excuse for religious and elected officials to lend the legitimacy of their institutions to criminal groups.


"You're a de facto gang-controlled city if you give them any power," said George W. Knox, director of the Chicago-based National Gang Crime Research Institute. "They are not part of the solution. They are part of the problem."

City officials should be meeting publicly with teachers, mothers, crime victims, ministers and other community leaders — not gang members, Knox said. "You embolden them when you recognize them. It gives them power and status. You are creating a bigger monster."

Officials of the local police union had no comment on the issue; Mayor Stephanie-Rawlings did not respond to a request for comment.

Tuesday's news conference came about 12 hours after Young joined more than 75 religious leaders at New Shiloh Baptist Church to deliver a similar message about gang members, while imploring Baltimore residents to stop rioting over Gray's death.


The Rev. William C. Calhoun, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, and other church leaders said gang members can be instrumental in reaching the youths seen looting and rioting. Calhoun and other ministers ran into gang members by chance on Monday night when the religious leaders marched from New Shiloh to North Avenue, where chaos still engulfed the street.

Both sides quickly realized that they were braving the violence to accomplish the same thing: restoring peace. And so the ministers — still dressed in their suits from Gray's funeral at New Shiloh — and the tattooed and T-shirt-clad gang members walked back to the church to talk.

Calhoun said the meeting was very productive. "We asked questions of each other. How can we quell the violence? We didn't come to do any blame game. We came to share and listen and to pray."

The Rev. Gregory V. Perkins, pastor of Historic St. Paul Community Baptist Church, said he supported the effort because gang members "have their ears to the ground on the street and can be used to bring about solutions."

He disagreed that such meetings give gangs legitimacy. "Simply because the [City] Council meets with gang members in no way indicates that they're legitimizing gang activity," he said.

This wouldn't be the first time that city officials had turned to criminals to help halt violence.

Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore, said that during Baltimore's 1968 riots, drug kingpin Melvin "Little Melvin" Williams was credited with dispersing rioters.

The Baltimore Sun reported in 2000 that Williams had stood up at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Mosher Street — not far from the current rioting — and with a microphone declared, "It's all over. Go home." The streets emptied shortly after.

"He wasn't a gang leader, but he was influential in Baltimore's underworld," Ross said. "Any solutions to quelling the violence and to restoring a sense of normalcy and to building a better city will require the participation of blocs of power players. And gangs are one of them."

Councilman Nick Mosby, who represents the West Baltimore neighborhood where Gray was arrested, said the 13 council members stood with Young on Tuesday to show solidarity about the need to stop the rioting. He added that it was good to conduct outreach with the gang members.

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon said gang members are a "segment of our community" that has "a voice that no one is listening to."

"I believe they could be of help," said Dixon, who once represented Gray's neighborhoods as a councilwoman. "They can influence some of those young people" who are looting.

At the council news conference and the New Shiloh gathering, some participants alleged that the Police Department falsely accused gangs on Monday of conspiring to target police officers.

"That was a false alarm cooked up to divide this city even further," said William "Billy" Murphy, the attorney for Gray's family. He and Gray's relatives joined the meeting at New Shiloh to call for peace.

Ministers and gang members in attendance — including Young — all nodded in agreement when Murphy said police lied about the "credible threat" about gangs targeting police.

Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said Tuesday that the threat was credible.

"We have verified it," Batts said. "We did not issue it to divide the community."

However, ministers and council members disagreed.

"We discovered tonight that [gang members are] not the problem," said the Rev. Errol Gilliard Sr., pastor of Greater Harvest Baptist Church. "Most of the looting was done by sick children."

Charles Shelly, who called himself a Crips gang member, said at Monday night's New Shiloh meeting that the police advisory made no sense.

"It's false, absolutely false. If that was the case, why wouldn't we do it today? We were on their side today."

He said gang members do not condone looting and rioting — and actually tried to help quell outbursts on North Avenue. But he said the rioting shows that black residents are tired of mistreatment from police, such as "officers rolling up with their guns drawn" when they encounter groups of men on the streets.

Standing next to a young man who said he was a member of the rival Bloods gang, Shelly said, "You got a Crip here, you got a Blood here, we not here for nobody to get hurt. We're here to protect our community. Me and him, we're supposed to be at arms, killing each other. Instead we in a church hugging each other."

Gang experts generally discounted the police advisory that the Crips, Bloods and BGF gangs had come together to target police.

"You're not going to get three different gangs to come together that fast," Knox said. "It's not realistic and it's not logical and it's not consistent."


Peter Moskos,a former Baltimore police officer who is an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said Batts was making a "red herring" argument about widespread gang problems in the city.


Moskos said Batts, who previously headed the Oakland, Calif., Police Department, was "taking that from Oakland where [gang violence] was a real problem. His wholegang focus is out of touch. It's ridiculous."

DavidM. Kennedy, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said hewasn'tsurprised that church leaders stood with gang members to ask forpeace. Even in high-crime neighborhoods, gang members are known to watch out for the areas, he said.

"People in these neighborhoods don't like chaos and destruction," said Kennedy, who has been advising Baltimore on policing strategies. "It's being driven by a small, number of people."

Gilliard said the gang members who reached out to help could be "a catalyst" for change in the neighborhood, helping leaders communicate better with the youth. "I believe they are valuable," he said.

Perkins said the city can use all the help it can get because of the "leadership vacuum" he sees on the streets as police and protesters continue to face off without few signs of visible enforcement.

"At this point things are spiraling out of control," Perkins said. "The police still do not have control of the streets. This is a dangerous situation because in a vacuum, leadership will emerge. The question is what type of leadership."