Gang Violence on Rise Again in Arkansas

by Brian Skoloff, Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK (AP) - In a scene reminiscent of a mob hit, a pack of youths on a street corner opens fire with semi-automatic rifles on a passing car. A 3-year-old girl takes a bullet in the head intended for her father, a suspected gang member. Passing through her skull, it misses her brain. She survives - barely.

Mail service is stopped for a time in a nearby neighborhood after a bullet pierces a truck on a routine delivery run. The U.S. Postal Service calls the area a "hostile environment."

Two men are ambushed and shot dead while sitting in their car behind an abandoned house in an apparent drug deal gone bad.

Nearby, a 24-year-old man is found dead on the sidewalk outside a beauty salon, shot in the groin in an apparent revenge killing.

A portion of the last six months on the streets of Little Rock. Drugs, guns and gangs.

One gang leader, "Daddy" as he's known on the streets, sits in a car on the corner of 14th and Booker talking with a reporter about his grip on this neighborhood. Young - armed- sentinels patrol the street corners, on the lookout for cops and rival gang members.

"Man in the hole!" someone yells from down the street.

Daddy slouches low in the car seat, tips the brim of his baseball cap beneath his eyes and cocks his head slightly to the left as a police patrol car slowly passes.

"They got nothin' on me," he says. "Yeah, I've shot several people. That's just life on the streets. That's why get respect. ... Now, I help keep these kids from killing each other, establish order. Some of the killings before were useless."

It has been 10 years since the Federal Bureau of Investigation ranked Little Rock's per capita homicide rate ahead of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. In 1993, the city hit a record high of 76 murders.

That same year, HBO highlighted the capital's plight with a documentary titled: "Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock."

City leaders flinched. Before the show aired in 1994, few spoke publicly about the surge of gang violence that began in the late 1980s.

The documentary revealed the skeletons in the city's closet.

Mayor Jim Dailey says business leaders were frantic.

"You're not just killing the people on the streets, you're killing our economy," Dailey said he was told.

Gangs carved out territories in 10-block chunks - killing each other in the process. Gun shots rang out in the night.

Law enforcement task forces were formed, a youth curfew was enacted, neighborhood associations cropped up by the dozens, church groups mobilized and the state legislature passed strict sentence-enhancing bills.

Gang violence slowed considerably.

Residents in stricken neighborhoods no longer had to sleep in their cast-iron bathtubs for protection from stray bullets. But that could change.

Gang leaders are hitting the streets again after serving fractions of their 10-and-20-year sentences. The sounds of gunshots are returning to the night. Recruitment is on the rise as gang leaders try to rebuild their sets. And city officials are again faced with the dilemma of escalating violence.

Police say the streets of south Little Rock and a few other areas are hostile. Gang violence is like a festering wound not to be healed, but simply confined, kept from infecting the rest of the city.

City leaders and advocates are more optimistic, hopeful that street-based programs can redirect disenfranchised youth born to a generation of drug dealers, addicts and gang members. Officials say they have made progress with prevention and intervention programs and continue to create alternatives for kids considering gang life.

But former and current gang leaders say that, as long there is poverty and a market for illegal drugs, nothing will change on the streets of Little Rock - or any other American city.

Commercial real estate agent Dickson Flake said the HBO documentary devastated the city's efforts to recruit new business.

"Back then, it was adversely affecting our ability to compete for business," Flake said. "Many locations are now acceptable to new businesses whereas, before, they would have eliminated a site due to the perception that it was not safe."

Mayor Dailey said police acted swiftly in the wake of the HBO documentary.

"They went into these neighborhoods to enforce anything they could and drove out the cockroaches," Dailey said. "There are still gangs on the streets, still gangs in schools. We still have youths selling drugs, but there's also a great success story here."

Detective Todd Hurd is the Little Rock Police Department's lead gang intelligence officer. He spends his days driving through the most gang-infested neighborhoods, talking to informants, watching small-time drug deals and gathering intelligence on who's in charge on the streets and when and where the big deals will go down.

"Right now it's all about making money. It's all about dealing dope," Hurd said. "They look at the police like speed bumps. We're just out there trying to slow them down."

Several times a year, the LRPD offers residents of the stricken neighborhoods a reprieve from the gang siege on their community.

It's a two-day operation to set up what narcotics officers call reversals. Police sweep the neighborhoods of street corner drug dealers and replace them with undercover officers wired with hidden microphones to capture conversations of would-be drug buyers and make arrests.

"This strikes at the heart of what moves the gangs. The drug money is the motivating factor, the whole scheme," Hurd said. "And it keeps the streets clean for a few days.

"But we're really starting to see a steady upswing in the shots fired calls, the shootings and the street drug dealings," he added.

Hurd said the new generation of gang members is not afraid of the police. They've learned tricks of the trade from people like Daddy.

"Combine everything they've learned with poverty, guns and gangs and that's a bad combination," Hurd said.

He said that, in the early 1980s, Little Rock didn't have a gang problem. But as violence surged in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, the gangs spread across the country.

"Mothers in L.A. and Chicago decided that their kids had been beaten up or shot at too many times so they put them on a bus and sent them to backwoods Little Rock," Hurd said. "They think nothing happens in Little Rock. And when the kids come out here, they walk the walk and talk the talk. They know the signs. And though we didn't have a gang problem before, we do now."

Ken Richardson is a coordinator with New Futures for Youth, a city program designed to offer at-risk kids opportunities outside of gang life.

He said the city has made progress keeping kids out of gangs, but that the work will never be done.

"I tell the kids, 'You may not make $100 in 20 minutes, but rest assured, you don't have to worry about someone shooting you on the job making hamburgers,"' Richardson said. "We've had a tremendous amount of success. But did we lose some kids to the streets? Sure."

Dorothy Nayles, director of the city's Department of Community Programs, said many youths join gangs out of desperation.

"Some of these kids have a real concern about their own families. They do illegal things to help put food on the table," Nayles said. "More times than we'd like to see, you have kids involved in the wrong things for the right reasons."

Leifel Jackson knows the drill. Known on the street as OG, Original Gangster, Jackson said that, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was making as much as $4,000 a day selling crack cocaine.

He mentored kids in the drug trade and taught them how to be loyal gang members.

Jackson served nearly nine years in a federal prison for drug trafficking. Since getting out last year, Jackson, 40, said he's turned his life around. He speaks at juvenile detention facilities and works several jobs, including one as an administrator for an at-risk youth program.

"It's tough going from a drug dealer to having to work for a living," Jackson said in an interview from one of his jobs at a funeral home.

"Back in the day, I was so deep into drugs, it was hard to turn it loose. I saw a lot of people die," he said.

But Jackson says he personally justified his illegal activities with good deeds, like buying shoes for neighborhood kids and firecrackers for the community on Fourth of July.

"And when night came, the same kids I would buy shoes for, I would turn around and sell their parents crack," he said. "In a twisted way, I was helping kill the people I loved in the community."

Jackson said gangs are just as prevalent on the streets of Little Rock now as they were in the 1990s. Police can slim the sets, he said, but there are always young recruits to fill the ranks.

Authorities estimate there are some 27 gangs in the city with an unknown number of members, ranging in age from early teens to the mid-40s.

"A lot of these kids have no hope," Jackson said.

Daddy is proud of his criminal roots.

He displays his battle scars from the days he said the streets of Little Rock were "like Vietnam." A chunk of his leg is missing from an AK-47 round and dotting his forehead is a smattering of tiny indentations from a shotgun blast.

His eyes are bloodshot and yellowed from years of crack use, his hands chapped, deeply creased and callused.

At 48, he's one of the oldest surviving active gang members in the Little Rock scene and is always under the watch of police and rival gang members.

He's been in and out of prison more than a dozen times and was last released about two years ago.

Nowadays, Daddy said, the gang life is about drugs and money. Territory has already been established.

The days of shooting each other based on colors - red for Bloods, blue for Crips - are, for the most part, a violent episode of history, he said.

"We've taken blue and red and turned it into green," Daddy said. "Otherwise, the killings would've continued."

Daddy said he teaches the younger gang members restraint, that the days of indiscriminate killings are over.

"I tell them, 'If you get into it with somebody and that person violates, you don't ride up and smoke everybody out there. You just get that one. You might have to hit a couple to get him, but he's got to go and really it save lives," Daddy said proudly.

For many youths living in poverty, he said the gang life and the drug trade creates a sense of belonging. It also puts food on the table, sometimes for the entire family.

"I've been in illegal activity the majority of my life. That experience out here on the streets pays off in certain ways to help some of the younger ones survive. Just by me spreading some of my knowledge, that's rewarding to me," Daddy said.

Police say their rewards are locking up people like Daddy.

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