How prevalent are “gangs” in Alabama’s Port City? According to Mobile Director of Public Safety Lawrence Battiste, while gangs exist throughout the city, they’re informal and small scale. But regardless of size, they’re making noise.
Traditionally, Battiste told Lagniappe, Mobile gangs have centered around housing developments and neighborhoods such as the Orange Grove group and others out of Roger Williams, R.V. Taylor, Down the Bay, Campground, Maysville and Toulminville.
“These were ‘gangs’ in the nontraditional sense, but they didn’t operate at the level of a criminal enterprise using their organization to commit crimes and profit,” Battiste said.
As these developments shut down or were torn down over the years, Battiste said, those localized groups were displaced and this has led to groups forming throughout the city.
The Mobile Police Department (MPD) has intelligence on about six different gang groups, according to Battiste. These loosely defined gangs have normally five to 10 individuals immediately associated with them. He declined to identify their group names as he said recognizing them can legitimize and embolden them.
“You’ve got a group in Theodore who calls themselves one thing and we’ve got multiple pockets of groups we dismantle in Maysville,” Battiste said.
Mobile is seeing a spike in aggravated assaults and homicides this year. As Lagniappe reported last month, there have been well over 1,200 assaults and more than 200 cases of gun violence with a growing number of victims as 2021 winds to a close.
MPD Police Chief Paul Prine said previously the majority of these cases are retaliatory in nature and between known affiliates. Prine was appointed police chief in October and MPD reported roughly one shooting incident per day in his first month on the job. He has made addressing youth gun violence one of his top priorities.
The issue of gangs was reemphasized in the wake of the Oct. 15 shooting at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, which left five injured at the end of a Vigor-Williamson football game. Mobile detective John Scroggins testified during a Dec. 6 trial hearing for two of the accused accomplices to the shooting that the incident was between two rival “gangs.”
But Battiste said the term “gang” is problematic as it is too broad and can incite undue fear in the public.
Battiste explained any group of two or more individuals that is active in criminal behavior could be technically classified as a “gang.” He said this definition creates a wide spectrum of possibilities for what a gang can look like. He said Mobile gangs have little to nothing in common with the infamous gangs dramatized in film and television series that require initiation murders and run drug enterprises.
Over 20 years with MPD, Battiste said, he has never seen large-scale organized gangs like the Crips or Bloods making any presence in the city.
“When we’re talking about gangs in the city of Mobile, most of the time — or at least during my tenure here — we’ve never denied there are gangs,” Battiste said. “What we have said is ‘gangs’ in the traditional sense of a truly organized structure, such as the Crips, with a hierarchy of who is in charge, don’t exist in Mobile.”
According to Battiste, flare-ups ensuing violence among gangs in Mobile are mostly escalations of minor beef between neighborhoods. Rarely are shootings or “hits” conducted over territory, he said.
“It’s usually over stuff like, ‘You said something about my girlfriend or something bad about my neighborhood’ or ‘You bumped into somebody,’” Battiste said. “You can ask these kids why they’re reacting to something so stupid, most of the time they’ll tell you they don’t know. It might have just been what one of them put in a text message.”
Often this looks like pulling up outside of someone’s house or vehicle and beginning to shoot.
“It’s cowardly,” Battiste said. “Someone they know got hurt, and they want to hurt someone worse than they’re hurting.”
As police make arrests in these groups, they disperse and reform continually. As many of these individuals involved in these groups are juveniles, Battiste said, law enforcement has their hands tied in many regards, especially in long-term solutions. He said it’s not until these individuals become legal adults that an arrest can lead to significant correctional measures and disrupt a gang’s influence.
Battiste noted the nature of the juvenile detention system is oriented away from long-term punishments. He said this means gang-affiliated youth go right back to the street on limited sentencing time.
When violence does break out, the lack of cooperation with investigators is also another hiccup. Battiste said this can be because victims don’t want to be seen as a “rat” or they want to take retaliation into their own hands and hit back.
“We can’t even get someone to tell us who might be involved,” Battiste said. “If we can find out who might be behind it, we might find the person and we might prevent the next three shootings.”
If there is any degree of cooperation, Battiste said, investigators can quickly link the incident back to a certain group or individuals and normally start connecting dots to past incidents.
Battiste said punishment is not swift enough. He said someone accused of a felony offense can be in the process of prosecution for one to three years before a conclusion is reached. By the time justice is served, Battiste said, most people have forgotten about the incident or they’ve reoffended while awaiting trial.
Ultimately, Battiste recognizes the city won’t be able to arrest its way out of this problem and suggested early intervention strategies. He said MPD works actively with the Mobile County Public School System on various programs to reach at-risk teenagers. He said he would like to see progress made in training youth how to healthily navigate conflict resolution without resulting to violence.
Battiste believes youthful violence stems from a lack of connection and relationships beginning at home and expanding to the community. He said teenagers caught up in gang affiliations are normally not participating in school extracurriculars and aren’t in other established social group settings such as church.
Battiste said MPD is doing everything it can to identify these individuals and have actionable steps in place to respond to shootings faster with technology.
“We need other strategies to be put in place to bring healing in our communities that don’t necessarily involve violence or incarceration,” Battiste said.
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