Kevin Gary is proud of his gang colors and wears contact lenses in the Bloods' trademark red to prove it. He speaks candidly about his membership in Tree Top Piru, a Baltimore affiliate of the Los Angeles-based gang that he joined in state prison. He lost his brother to gang violence and still the 25-year-old defends the culture for what it has to offer - community, respect and protection. And that's what should be foremost in people's minds as they debate the prevalence of gangs in Maryland: not that they are operating here - because they are - but why.
To expect law enforcement alone to solve this problem would be a colossal misread of the situation. As The Sun's Gus G. Sentementes and Annie Linskey recently reported, the presence of gangs in Baltimore and their involvement in crime are as much about a sense of dislocation among youth as they are about the profitability of the city's drug trade. Schools and the juvenile justice system have to be on the front lines in this war, along with police, prosecutors and prison officials.
Introductions to gangs can begin in school or at a local block party, and schools and communities need to counter this outreach with positive alternatives. Parents and grandparents should pay attention to their children's choice of clothes, colors, slang and tattoos - they may be signs of gang involvement.
Gang initiation can begin with a robbery of a cell phone or a beating. Efforts should be made to identify gang suspects in minor crimes and divert them, when appropriate, to anti-gang programs, because the more entrenched they become in the gang lifestyle, the greater the likelihood of their involvement in more serious and violent crime.
Baltimore's drug trade, for example, has always involved gangs or crews, though in the past they organized around neighborhoods, housing projects or streets. But the gangs popular today are membership organizations modeled after and linked to national groups. Such affiliations cross neighborhood and state lines, which can benefit the gangs but complicate efforts to police them.
Information about gang membership and leadership is key to tracking criminal activity and preventing violence, and a new state law will help by establishing a central data bank for Maryland. The same law enhances prosecution of and penalties for gang-related crime.
But early intervention remains critical in reducing the influence of gangs. School police say children as young as 12 have joined gangs. Activities that engage kids' interests, mentors who are invested in their lives, summer job programs that provide an honest way to earn money - these can make a difference in a child's life because they serve as powerful incentives against joining a gang.