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Cops: 5,000 belong to 100 gangs in city

Citizen Staff Writer



There are an estimated 1 million street gang members in the United States and in some communities they commit up to 80 percent of crimes, according to a report by the U.S. Justice Department’s National Gang Intelligence Center released in January.

The study warns that gang activity and gang membership is on the rise nationwide.

But that does not appear to be the case here, said Lt. JT Turner, commander of the Tucson Police Department’s Gang Interdiction Section.

He said that although Tucson is one of the major hubs in the country for marijuana distribution, gang violence here could be “much worse,” even though 22 of 74 homicides in 2008 were gang related.

Although fewer than 1 percent of Tucson’s population of a half-million are gang members, they have a disproportionate impact on violent crime here.

Turner said the motives for the 22 homicides represent a variety of circumstances:

Two were robberies, one was a result of “disrespect,” three were an altercation over drugs, three were drug ripoffs, two were fights, one was domestic violence, one was a family fight, one was two men fighting over a woman, one was a case of recklessness, three were self defense, one took place at a party, two have unknown motives and one was the result of a “true gang motive.”

“We hate each other and that’s the way we roll,” Turner said of gang members.

Turner said there are an estimated 5,000 people in Tucson affiliated with about 100 gangs and gang “sets” – a group within a gang.

But considering Tucson’s proximity to the border, gang-related crime is “not as bad as it could be,” he said.

Stepped-up police enforcement and outreach efforts have put street gangs on notice that the officers and detectives in TPD’s relatively new Gang Interdiction Section are on the lookout for them and for gang-related criminal activity.

The section was created in early 2008 to centralize all anti-gang efforts in the Police Department.

Now two gang tactical squads with 10 officers and two sergeants “put boots on the ground” seven nights a week, looking for street gang members and rounding up criminal suspects with gang ties, Turner said.

The TPD also has a Gang Investigations Unit that investigates all major crimes in which a gang member is involved, from aggravated assaults to robberies and homicides, Turner said.

The department also keeps a database of known street gang members, using criteria set by state law.

Turner said gangs here aren’t segregated by race but about 66 percent of gang members are Hispanics, he said.

Membership in street gangs in Tucson is fluid. Although it’s not the norm, in some cases, members shift from one gang to another as members move from one neighborhood to another and allegiances change, he said.

Turner would not name any of the gangs operating in Tucson. Doing that would only give them prestige among gang culture here, he said.

Part of what the department has done is develop more expertise in local gang culture.

Officers and investigators know that gang members live in a culture of violence spiked with impulsivity.

“They’re much quicker to act out (than non-gang members). If there’s a fight and you add a gang member into the mix, it’s more likely to turn into an aggravated assault or a murder,” Turner said.

And whether the gang member is a perpetrator or victim, “there’s a higher likelihood of a serious, violent event coming out of it.”

The Gang Interdiction Section, with Turner supervising 16 police officers and seven detectives, is “one of the most robust gang sections for a city of our size,” Turner said.

“It’s the reason we’ve been able to keep a handle on our gang crime to the extent that we do,” Turner said.

The officers work in the “known high-crime areas and go eye to eye” with gang members to prevent gang violence.

The Police Department began to take a more holistic approach to the street gang problem with the creation of a Gang Outreach Unit in mid-2007.

Members of that unit mentor at-risk, middle-school-age youths referred to police by schools, religious organizations and community service groups.

They also teach youths “choice awareness,” tips for minimizing the chances of becoming a victim of gang violence.

One is simple: Don’t get involved in a high-risk lifestyle.

On one early February outing, they picked up a 15-year-old runaway on probation. He was hanging out in the early evening with other youths dressed in the red of the Southside Posse Bloods.

The police took him home to his father.

Gang Outreach Unit officers have also developed an “education component” delivered to schools and community groups.

Its curriculum teaches adults how they can steer children from gang life. It also teaches school-age children the pitfalls of becoming involved in the gang lifestyle and tools and strategies to avoid it.

Young people who join gangs are typically not full-time students, Turner said.

They are young teens who come from families that don’t provide much supervision, structure or support.

Gangs give them status and respect when they don’t feel they get respect or love in any other element of their life, he said.

They don’t have parental support to steer them away from gang life.

“The prestige and respect they get is something they are craving,” he said.

“When you get them away from the gang element, they are babies, really.”

“Quite frankly, it’s sad,” Turner said. “There are only two ways out. You’re gonna end up dead or in prison.”

Tucson street gang makeup


Under age 17 6%

18 to 30 56%

31 and over 38%


Male 93%

Female 7%


Hispanic 66%

African American 19%

Caucasian 10%

Native American 5%

Source: Tucson Police Department

Gang statistics

Number of documented gang members in the Tucson area: 5,000

Number of gangs and sets in the Tucson area: At least 100

Number of gang members statewide: 20,800

Number of gangs statewide: 631

Source: 2007 Arizona Gang Threat Assessment, Arizona Criminal Justice Commission

Gang-related killings in Tucson

Total Gang-

Year homicides related percent

2008 74 22 30

2007 54 7 13

2006 52 23 44

2005 57 18 32

2004 56 11 20

Source: Tucson Police Department

Anti-gang talk

Nicky Cruz, the former leader of the violent Mau Mau gang, will speak at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. at 6 p.m. Friday.

Admission is free.

Who’s a gang member?

According to state law, police must use the following criteria to consider someone a street gang member:

• self-proclamation

• witness testimony or official statement

• written or electronic correspondence

• paraphernalia or photographs

• tattoos

• clothing or “colors”

• any other indicia of street gang membership.

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