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Elizabeth Lafferty thinks Shelby County has a gang problem and that it's time to do something about it.
Lafferty, the new director of the Shelby County Drug/Alcohol Advisory Council, recently made presentations to both Shelby County Fiscal Court and Shelbyville City Council to outline what she says are signs that gangs are active in this area. She is seeking a federal grant to address this issue.
Lafferty said she knew of at least 10 gangs that have active members in Shelby County, and she cited a recent statewide survey by the Kentucky Incentives for Prevention program that said 40 percent of eighth-grade students reported that graffiti - a key indicator of gang activity - was a problem at their schools, with 34 percent of sophomores reporting that gangs were a problem at their schools, an increase of 5 percent from the same survey conducted in 2006.
Gary Kidwell, director of student accounting and support services for Shelby County Public Schools and a former principal at Shelby County High School, said he doesn't think gang activity is a big problem in local schools.
"I know some people would say that's being naïve, because schools are generally reflective of the community, but we've not had any gang-related issues here," he said. "I'm sure there may well be students who are members of gangs who participate in gang activity outside of school, but I think it's a testament to the climate here that administrators, teachers and students have created."
Maj. D. Goodwin of the Shelbyville Police Department said most people in Shelbyville don't know about the gang activity here because the big-city gang behavior is mostly lacking here.
"In places like L.A. and New York, gangs are notorious for drive-by shootings and gangland murders because they are fighting over turf," he said. "It's all about money, drugs and guns and all kinds of scams. And people are afraid of them because gang members might accidentally shoot them while they are shooting at each other. And nothing can unkill you."
Gangs in Shelby
Lafferty said that one thing that makes Shelbyville a good target for gangs is that Interstate 64 serves as a conduit for drug trafficking across the U.S., making Shelby County an ideal location for attracting illegal activity.
"Gangs put the entire community at risk," she said.
Some factors that indicate gang activity include graffiti on buildings, an increase in drug offenses, an increase in youth displaying gang colors, clothing and signs, an increase in violent crimes, an increase in identity theft and an increase in burglaries.
There is a significant amount of graffiti on businesses, especially along Midland Boulevard in Shelbyville. Local law enforcement officials say they can't discuss whether they have made significant arrests of gang members or for gang-related offenses.
But Lafferty said that from information she has gathered, in addition to her own observations on a police ride-along, there is gang activity across the board as far as ethnic groups are concerned.
"In surrounding counties like Henry and Spencer, they have not seen quite the amount of graffiti that we have in Shelby County," she said.
Shelbyville Councilman Shane Suttor said that he thinks and activity in the city is getting worse, and he's glad to see the problem addressed.
"I'm glad people are starting to realize that this is a growing problem here," he said. "We can't just bury our heads in the sand and expect it to go away. A lot of people don't think we have a problem because they don't see it on a daily basis, but it is a major problem here."
Not a new issue
A year ago, The Sentinel-News examined the gang problem in Shelby County but specifically focused on Hispanic gang activity.
At that time, Shelby County Detective Jason Rice said that the Latino gang situation in the county was not yet at a critical point, and in a recent interview, he said that has not changed.
"I can't speak for the city, but we haven't experienced a lot of gang activity in the county," he said. "Some people have said that they have seen what they think might constitute gang activity, but we have not had any direct reports of that."
Rice added that it's harder to identify gang activity in smaller towns such as Shelbyville.
"In big cities like Chicago, they are more obvious and more defiant about their locations and the colors that they wear," he said. "In big cities, they have to identify themselves, because it's all territorial, they want everybody to know who they are and what gang they represent because they want to defy the other gangs and here it's not quite like that."
Goodwin said a major reason why kids join gangs is because they are around gang members all the time and because their family life is undesirable.
"They come from a family of drug users who will kill you to get the ring off your finger to sell it for crack, or who will break into your house and steal your stuff to get money to buy cocaine," he said. "And kids also join gangs to have a way to be cool. They think they are going to make a lot of money selling dope, and they watch TV, where gang members are glamorized, and that image is promoted and they want to be that way, too."
A plan to fight
Lafferty has applied for a grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention that would help her organization combat what she has observed.
"If we are chosen to receive grant funds, those funds would be used for youth mentoring programs for at-risk and high-risk youth with the intent to prevent them from participating in gang activity or being recruited by a gang," she said.
She said her council would partner with such groups as the public school system, church youth groups, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters, just to name a few, to try to keep gang members from recruiting kids.
"We would try to partner with anyone who has involvement with youth to offer services and support, as we are currently doing under our Drug Free Communities grant," she said. "Providing support for prevention based programs and services is at the heart of what we do and we have really hit the ground running with the implementation of server training in alcohol regulations (STAR) scholarships for local businesses, support for parenting classes, prenatal care classes for Latina women, and activities to include our Youth Advisory Council."
Mayor Tom Hardesty said he supports Lafferty's efforts to try to do something to prevent kids from joining gangs.
"We, along with the Fiscal Court, have written a letter in support of the council, because we will work with any agency who is trying to eliminate gang activity," he said. "It's true that illegal drugs and illegal aliens tend to go hand-in-hand sometimes, and we will deal with all gang activity, whether they're U.S. citizens or illegals."
Lafferty said her focus is broader than just the situation involving Hispanic gangs that the newspaper reported on a year ago.
"I would like to emphasize that this issue of gang activity is not isolated to any one ethnic group as the main cause of the situation," she said. "There are numerous factors [such as the current unemployment rate and the state of the economy] that that have contributed to the gang situation that we have now that makes this more of a community issue than a racial divide."
Public help needed
Though Lafferty's recommendation to counteract gang activity is very general (be involved, proactive, consistent and cohesive), County Judge-Executive Rob Rothenburger was more specific in what he thinks people should do.
"I think she [Lafferty] is correct to make people aware of gang activity, and she gave a great presentation to try to educate people on that," he said. "I think people need to keep their ears and eyes open and report any gang activity they see to law enforcement.
"If everybody would call the police every time they see gang activity, maybe we can get a handle on this, and they won't so eager to set up shop here. We need to be very vigilant and not let them take over our community."
"All evil needs to succeed is for good people to do nothing," he said.
10 known gangs in Shelbyville • FMA 13 (Familia 13, girls school age to mid-20s) • Surenos (La EME) • Sur 13 (controls the work of day laborers) • 18th Street (California orgin) • Latin Kings (New York origin) • La Nietas (Bronx origin) • MS 13 (El Salavdor origin) • Latin Disciples (local young school age members) • Brown Pride (local) • Mexican Pride (local)