Cops 'basically erased' Porter County gangs in the '90s
CROSSROADS OF CRIME: They acted quickly on tips, charged
youths as adults
BY KEN KOSKY
This story ran on nwitimes.com on Tuesday, November 29,
2005 4:18 PM CST
Police got a tip that a gang meeting -- which would
involve beatings -- was to take place behind Myers
Elementary School. Police set up cameras and videotaped
the meeting, then charged about 10 juveniles in adult
court with criminal gang activity.
"When we took that aggressive approach, I think our
local kids that were getting interested saw those kids
get charged as adults," Swickard said.
"We went four or five years without seeing anything," he
said. "We basically erased it."
Back then, street gangs were causing major headaches in
nearby communities, and police in those areas warned
that gangs could overtake Porter County by 1998.
That didn't happen.
In fact, police say they aren't seeing anything like the
attempted influx they saw in the early 1990s.
"I think they know we don't tolerate it," Swickard said.
In Portage's case, two families with gang involvement
moved in from East Chicago and "it exploded ... within a
six or seven-month period," Swickard said. There was
even a shootout, but nobody was injured.
Police and school officials shared information, banned
gang colors from schools, quickly erased any graffiti
and put large amounts of manpower into catching gang
members committing crimes.
"I think you do have to chase them out of town,"
Swickard said. "I'm not saying it isn't here, but it's
not as obvious if it is. We attacked it and we put a big
dent in it."
Valparaiso police Capt. Curt Hawkins, who like Swickard
fought gangs in the early 1990s, agreed that gangs
didn't take over the county as predicted.
"They are just not as visible," Hawkins said.
He said 20 to 30 police officers from Lake, Porter and
LaPorte counties met monthly in the 1990s to share gang
Gang members -- who often moved in from Chicago, Detroit
or Lake County -- were surprised when police already
knew about them. In Porter County, prosecutors charged
the gang members with the crimes and additional counts
of participating in criminal gang activity.
Hawkins said police did a great job of educating
parents, employers and schools about gang symbols and
signs. For the last 12 or 13 years, police have taught
Gang Resistance Education And Training classes to all
seventh-graders in Valparaiso.
Police let the young people know how gang involvement
usually ends in prison or death, Hawkins said.
"We take away all the shine," he said.
Another key has been to quickly remove any graffiti and
to photograph and document all suspected gang members
and their activities.
"Between the education and enforcement ... they knew
they weren't going to Valparaiso and Porter County to
play those games," Hawkins said.
"They knew we were going to take a proactive approach.
We weren't going to let it be a cancer that takes over."
For example, police received information that there was
going to be a fight at a bowling alley in Valparaiso.
Police put an undercover van in the parking lot, and
when one of the suspects showed up, they quickly
arrested him on a trespassing charge. He'd been warned
on an earlier date never to return.
Hawkins said officers were made aware of who the gang
"It wasn't a hit list, but (officers were told) if you
have any encounters, be on your toes," he said.
"That was our way of saying, 'If you're going to be in
town talking about it (how tough the gang was), we're
the biggest gang -- the cops. I'm not going to let you
come into town and intimidate, threaten and scare
Hawkins also said gangs were their own worst enemies,
losing membership when members died or went to prison.
He said that was enough to make others realize gang life
had no future. The gangs, by being so loud and public,
were easier to catch than if they'd run a silent
operation, Hawkins said.
What does Hawkins see for the future?
"If you look at history, there were gangs in the cowboy
days," he said.
"I think you're always going to have gangs. But as long
as the community takes a very proactive stance against
it, I think we will stay on top of it like we have
Porter County Jail Sgt. Bud Gootee was a detective in
1991 when the department got a tip that gangs were
coming to the county and that as many as 150 gang
members should be expected. In actuality, a Chicago gang
member came to Lake Eliza and persuaded 10 local kids to
form a gang.
Gootee went to Hammond and Chicago to learn from police
who already were battling gangs. He returned to Porter
County and saw the same graffiti and other signs of gang
activity he'd seen in the cities.
"We started to realize we do have a problem," Gootee
said. "What we did was decide to be proactive. That's
why we've been able to have a better handle on street
Gootee said Porter County's method for dealing with
gangs is the same method used to keep a lid on all
"You've got to take care of the little things (like
making traffic stops that lead to bigger things). It's
been our philosophy, and I hope it will always
continue," Gootee said.
It's not only police and school officials who have kept
gangs out of the county, Gootee said. It's residents who
won't tolerate open drug dealing and other gang
Of what little gang activity there is in Porter County,
Gootee said, "It's not out in front where people
represent themselves to be gangs."
Still, Gootee noticed something interesting during his
time as a gang investigator. The young people who turned
to gangs were those who at home were abused, lived in
poverty, had a lack of parental guidance, or were not
pushed to become interested in education or jobs.
"When we dealt with the parent, it was apparent they
were in the same cycle. That's a social phenomenon that
will always continue," Gootee said.