News: CJ Exclusives

Friday Interview: Speaking of Gangs

Welcome to Carolina Journal Online’s Friday Interview. Today, Carolina Journal Radio’s Donna Martinez interviews Mark Bridgeman, president of the North Carolina Gang Investigator’s Association and a lieutenant in the Fayetteville Police Department. They discuss the Governor’s Crime Commission report on increased gang activity in North Carolina. The interview aired on Carolina Journal Radio (click here to find the station near you).

Martinez: Tell us what you think are the headlines out of the Governor’s Crime Commission Report on gangs in our state.

Bridgeman: There are several different aspects to that survey that I find somewhat alarming. The initial survey they conducted was in 1999 and that kind of set the baseline of what we are looking at today.

Martinez: We’re comparing 2004 to 1999 in this report?

Bridgeman: Yes ma’am. And there is a significant increase of reported gangs and gang members within our state. That increase could be one of two things. One, we could have more gang members, obviously. Two, it could be law enforcement recognizes it. They are better trained, they are readily accepting it as part of the law enforcement realm that we have to keep an eye on, and they are reporting it like they should. Ultimately…I think there are probably more. There are some agencies that have not reported gang activity for whatever reason. A lot of times it is denial. They don’t want to admit that they have gangs within their community. A lot of times they don’t want to admit they have a problem unless they have a solution to address the problem.

Martinez: I moved here from Phoenix about 10 years ago, and Phoenix at that time already had a gang problem due to its proximity to Los Angeles. Gangs were moving from L.A. into the Phoenix area. But when I moved to North Carolina, I had a sense that North Carolina was insulated from gang activity. When did this state become attractive to gangs?

Bridgeman: Gangs have been here for a long time, but whether or not we’ve recognized that they were here, is a different story. We first started dealing with gangs probably in the early ‘90s here in the state of North Carolina. That is when the first gang units got started. Fayetteville was one of the first, as well as, I believe, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office started a gang unit back in the early ‘90s. And we’ve been dealing with gangs ever since. Sometimes gang units will fade over periods of time, but that is a different story. The other thing about that survey —going back to the survey — is that if you look at the data on the survey, the majority of the reported individuals are going to be less than 24 years old. And, the majority of those less than 24 years old are going to be between the ages of 13 and 17. Those are going to be the individuals within the school system — within the high school or middle school years. We are all parents. We have kids that we know…our kids are going to the same schools that these gang members are.

Martinez: I traditionally think that gangs would be associated with large cities, with urban areas, but apparently that’s not correct anymore.

Bridgeman: There are a few misconceptions.

Martinez: Tell us about that.

Bridgeman: A lot of people think it is a big city problem. Well, when you have an issue where you have gangs within a community — and Durham is a good example —they start a 30-man gang unit over in Durham and they start vigorously enforcing the law on gang members. What they [gangs] do is kind of like water: it [the gang] is going to follow the path of least resistance. They are going to go to areas where they can operate freely, and a lot of times, it is going to be these rural areas or these smaller communities that don’t have the resources or infrastructure to deal with these problems effectively.

Martinez: So how are, particularly the rural areas, dealing with this? Are they having to reprioritize their resources, and even their budgets, to address this growing problem?

Bridgeman: Well, in some of these smaller communities, the average size of a law enforcement agency is only 12 to 15 law enforcement officers.

Martinez: That is much smaller than what I would think.

Bridgeman: Yes. And people don’t really think of the one- or two-man departments. For example, in Angier they only have 11 or 12 law enforcement officers and that is the whole department. If they have a problem within that community, they are robbing Peter to pay Paul in overtime, if they have to address certain issues. In larger agencies, they have enough manpower that they can allocate towards certain issues within communities.

Martinez: The General Assembly also has taken note of this problem, and a couple of bills have been introduced this session. What is the General Assembly trying to do?

Bridgman: There are a couple of things within that legislation that they are trying to address. I don’t know if it will pass this session. I’m hopeful that it will, but it is getting kind of late in the session. One of the things — shooting from a motor vehicle or any occupied structure — would now be a felony. And what precipitated that were the shootings in Durham where individuals were shooting from a bus at an individual on the street, and the individual on the street returned fire.

Martinez: Those were incidents that occurred several months ago?

Bridgeman: Yes. I think it was about a year ago now. The individual on the bus, he was only charged with a misdemeanor, whereas the guy on the street that returned fire shot into an occupied vehicle, and he got charged with a felony. What they want to do is level the playing field. If you shoot from an occupied structure or any type of conveyance, it will be a Class H felony as well. The other thing that they are trying to do is some firearms enhancement.

Martinez: What is that?

Bridgeman: It is where if you are in possession of a firearm during what is determined to be a gang-related or motivated crime, it would be, I think, 60 months added on to the end of your sentence. And then it goes up progressively. If you display or you discharge it [a firearm] — if you discharge it in the commission of your crime — it is an extra 120 months or 10 years.

Martinez: Essentially they are trying to add some gang activities as aggravating factors in sentencing.

Bridgeman: Absolutely. That’s the thing: gangs, guns, and drugs, they all go together.

Martinez: Let’s talk about another element of this Governor’s Crime Commission report that I found fascinating and frankly, alarming. That is the issue of girls being involved in gangs.

Bridgeman: I think girls have been involved in gang activities for a long time now. Back in Fayetteville in 1998, we had a double homicide and attempted murder…The leader of the gang was a female leader…she was an active part, and she was pretty much the shot-caller for that gang.

Martinez: So it’s really not new, but is it correct that it is growing?

Bridgeman: It is reported higher in this survey. The thing that really caught my eye is that it is not just a male-dominated activity anymore. It is not just male-dominated gangs. Sixty percent of the gangs reported here in North Carolina had some type of female involvement. And the females are just as dangerous as their male counterparts. They do the same things their male counterparts are doing.

Martinez: Mark, what should parents look for? How do we know that what our kids are wearing and the mannerisms they are using…is just a phase versus what is actual gang related activity or mannerisms?

Bridgeman: One thing is to be involved. You have to be involved in your child’s life. Know what is going on. The other thing is, you have to look for certain signs and symbols. I know that a lot of this stuff is traditionally fad, and people want to say, “This is just a phase that my child is going through.” But it is also dangerous — very dangerous. Be on the lookout. Contact your local law enforcement agency. You can send a message to our Gang Investigators Association. I get several emails a month from concerned parents.

Martinez: What is your website?

Bridgeman: It is www.ncgangcops.org.

(Read the Crime Commission report referenced in this interview here.)