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Gangs in Porter County

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 information.
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 members were.
"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 people.' "
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 been."
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 gangs."
Gootee said Porter County's method for dealing with gangs is the same method used to keep a lid on all crime.
"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 activity, too.
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.

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