The question hangs heavy in the air as Baltimore's chief prosecutor leans forward in his chair on the second floor of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, measuring his answer in slow bites so his point will not be missed.
"Does Baltimore have a gang problem?" State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms asked in an interview Friday. "The answer is yes."
It's a loaded statement, and Mr. Simms knows it. In a city that values its reputation as a place far off the gang warpath that runs from New York to the nation's capital, there is a reluctance to call Baltimore's "neighborhood boys" anything but "groups" or "crews" or "loose-knit organizations."
But the debate about what to call them illustrates the deep divisions among law enforcers, neighborhood activists and school officials that some say may stand in the way of unified action.
"We definitely have a problem with youth violence, with youths and guns, with youths and drugs," says Lt. Diane Dutton of the Baltimore Police Crime Prevention Unit, echoing a half-dozen other officers. "But it's really stretching the point to call it gang activity."
But Mr. Simms says that local police may soon be forced to relinquishsuch notions about youth crime in a city where one out of every five murders is committed by a teen-ager.
New federal programs aimed at gang intervention, a pending statewide task force study and gang summits in Chicago and Washington, D.C., last week are driving a discussion that will be hard to ignore.
believe if the police department was honest, if the politicians were totally honest, they would have to say the seeds of a gang problem exist in our community," said the Rev. Frank Madison Reid III, pastor of Bethel AME Church in West Baltimore, who participated in a revival at the gang summit in Chicago.
And Mr. Simms' 19-attorney juvenile unit is reporting new correlations over the past year between crimes by Baltimore's youths and whether they claim affiliation to one of the city's dozens of neighborhood crews. The bottom line: Youngsters who belong tend to be repeat offenders.
"It's a trend that's been developing for the past few years," Mr. Simms said. "I'm ready to stand up and say that today. We've been looking at the problem here for a year now, and we're seeing the connections. There are gangs in this city."
And some say that Baltimore -- one of only six cities nationwide with a population of more than 200,000 that doesn't have some form of police gang unit -- is tempting disaster.
"It's almost impossible to imagine a city the size of Baltimore -- with its proximity to New York and Philadelphia and Washington, with its violent crime rate, with its drug problem -- not having some sort of gang activity," said Dr. G. David Curry, of the University of West Virginia's National Gang Survey project.
"By not recognizing it, you're standing still while it spreads. You're not getting the kind of cooperation between all the groups and agencies that you need to deal with it. And when the problem finally reaches critical mass, the only option you have left is to suppress it in a military fashion."
In Baltimore, they call themselves the McCabe Avenue Boys, the Old York Road Boys, the Whitelocks, the Park Heights Group and the Jamaican Posse. Some go back generations -- passed down from father to son, from big brother to spud sibling -- neighborhood fraternities in which the secrets of life were learned. That was generally the pattern until about 10 years ago, when sophisticated out-of-town drug organizations began moving into town and providing new motives and deadlier means to the local "boys."
"In the old days, you'd get into an occasional fistfight or scrape, but it was mostly just a bunch of guys hanging out on a street corner or playing football in the park," said Bernard Stokes Jr., chief of security for the Baltimore City Schools.
"Now, they're taking over the street corners and the parks They're taking over whole neighborhoods. I don't have a problem saying that there's something loose in the city these days that wasn't here when I was a kid."
What Mr. Stokes does have a problem saying is the word "gangs" -- even though his 94 officers seized 47 guns last year, the biggest haul since 1987.
Last month, school and other police officers quelled a melee near Douglass High School involving about 300 members and followers of the Whitelocks and R&G; "groups" -- rivals from Reservoir Hill and the neighborhood around Reisterstown Road and Gwynns Falls Parkway.
Residents like Willie and Sallie Johnson have watched thei neighborhood come under occupation by the R&Gs.; The Johnsons do not hesitate to call the group "a gang."
"They have leaders, they have names, they are organized and they are armed," said Mr. Johnson, a retired crane operator. "And they have everybody on this block terrified. I call that a gang. Some people might even call them an army."
Still, Mr. Stokes says he is reluctant to call even that "gang behavior" for fear that "labeling it will encourage it."
It's a real concern, said Dr. Curry.
"You need to have a plan that includes enforcement, intervention and counseling before you start going around trying to identify kids who might be at risk," he said. "All too often, we see communities screaming at their police to stop the gangs and leaving the police with no choice except to launch crackdowns that only make matters worse.
"And when the police fail, the gangs just feel all the more powerful."
Mr. Simms bears another warning, noting that some youngsters from broken homes and broken neighborhoods find a sense of belonging in gangs. "When we start condemning gangs without providing these kids with an alternative, we condemn them all with a capital C."
But a city hungry for answers and reeling from a record 335 murders last year is losing patience with such fine points, says Robert Nowlin. The blind father of four and anti-drug crusader in Northeast Baltimore's Pen Lucy neighborhood wants action.
His house, on the border between the warring Old York Road Boys and McCabe Avenue Boys, has been sprayed with bullets. Bricks have been thrown at his front door. And he has been threatened.
"We're not talking about pranks here," he said. "I know the police say these groups we have here don't have the level of sophistication necessary to call them gangs. But they've been sophisticated enough to take over our neighborhood."
In the summer of 1992, not a half-block from Mr. Nowlin's front door, gunfire sputtered from a black van on Old York Road. Two people were killed and six wounded.
At least seven young men have been arrested in the incident -- including alleged ringleader Reginald King, 20, who is to stand trial next month on a charge of murder.
In sworn statements in the case, witnesses and suspects describe a tit-for-tat spree of shootings and assaults over a period of weeks.
In one court record, Mr. King himself describes how he and his friends took turns storing an AK-47 assault rifle -- the "neighborhood gun." And one 16-year-old boy gives an account of an earlier drive-by shooting in which five friends in a Nissan Maxima sprayed their rivals with gunfire.
Asked how many of the young men were shooting, the boy told detectives, "Everybody but the driver."
A few weeks later, on that hot August night in the 4000 block of Old York Road, the opposition retaliated with gunfire from the van.
"Obviously, after what we saw that night, we were concerned that we might be seeing the beginning of a major problem," said Det. Sgt. Edward E. Adelhardt, who assigned an extraordinary nine homicide investigators to the case.
"But this has really been the pattern in Baltimore: We have dozens of these drug organizations of four or five people who sometimes turn violent when they rub up against each other's turf. In terms of their level of organization, they're not the same as gangs.
"At the same time, I can sympathize with the residents who want to call that a gang. If I had to live with it, I probably would too."
GANG UNITS LACKING
Of 79 U.S. cities with 200,000-plus populations, six do not have some form of police gang unit:
* Washington, D.C.
* Raleigh, N.C.
* Newark, N.J.
* Memphis, Tenn.
* Richmond, Va.