Gang names in articles help give the public the full the story

By Maggie Shepard
Albuquerque Tribune
Saturday, April 14, 2007

Good grief, have I gotten an earful of complaints since our story on the city’s latest gang war hit The Tribune’s Web site and newsstands.

Police, you should know, have never approved of gang names making it into media reports. They label incidents only as “gang-related,” leaving any deeper connection between the crimes hidden.

So, our front-page screamer about the 11 homicides linked to a war between the gangs TCK and West Side Locos since 2003 got them red-faced riled and dialing my number.

You’re just feeding the gangs what they want – notoriety and attention – police said. It will make them bolder and more appealing to vulnerable youths.

And the gangs you didn’t talk about will strive for attention with stepped-up violence, they predicted.

It’s not just local law enforcement. Police departments around the country make a similar argument.

Alex Alonso, a renowned gang scholar in Los Angeles, recounts what is considered the first bona fide Crips gang homicide.

Within a week of a 1972 Los Angeles Times story describing the Crips’ key attire as a black leather jacket, a 16-year-old high school quarterback, not a gang member, was beaten to death over a black leather coat, Alonso writes in his history of black Los Angeles gangs.

Alonso explains that before this report, gang members hadn’t yet crossed over to killing. The story and subsequent publicity of the killing gave the gang such notoriety that its ranks swelled with vulnerable youths.

Other gangs developed in opposition to the Crips. Gang membership in Los Angeles County now registers at about 26,000 in 50 gangs, according to the Los Angeles Police Department’s Web site.

But this same gang hotbed has seen a big break in the tradition of never naming names.

In February, the Los Angeles mayor and police department not only said they will start naming gangs involved in violence, they publicly ranked the top 11 gangs.

Ruben Leyva, who directs an Albuquerque youth gang intervention program at Youth Development Inc.’s Fourth Street Outreach Family Services Center, doesn’t advocate such a list, but he does think it is time to openly discuss the violent hostility between TCK and West Side.

Violent rivalries have been around for all of organized humanity, he said. But when he was in high school in the mid-1970s, the fights were with fists, not guns.

And they weren’t drug-profit motivated, Leyva said. He finds it hard to recall what motivated the rivalry.

Explaining some of the animosity between gangs now is more complicated and more fit for a sociology textbook.

“People think it is senseless. It might seem senseless because a lot of people live in safe places,” said Josh Barreras, a case manager with YDI.

In an attempt to simplify the situation, he and Leyva explain that gang members start off as defenseless children driven by “bare-bones survival” to seek safety and comfort in numbers of similarly lost peers.

“They don’t join gangs to kill people. They join a gang to love somebody,” Leyva said.

Marking their territory with graffiti and other posturing are efforts to ensure that others will be too intimidated to threaten them and their neighborhoods, he said.

It’s a mentality that many of us don’t understand.

Police say our limited knowledge of how the culture works is all the more reason for the media to not venture into writing about gangs.

One of my editors looks at it this way: We have a hard time understanding the mentality of serial killers, but would we refrain from telling our readers about a man who had killed 11 people in Albuquerque since 2003?

Of course not.

And the community would be outraged if the police didn’t at least warn us, and let us know they are working on a solution.

“I’m still not clear how not naming them has added to the public security,” Tribune Editor Phill Casaus said.

Police say that because TV and newspaper reporters generally adhere to the no-naming policy, we couldn’t know the dangers of publicizing names. But just wait for the fallout from our story.

One detective even warned he’d arrest Tribune editors if a homicide was motivated by our coverage. Seriously.

Equally serious, though, are the numbers.

At least 11 dead in four years – including two children.

A minimum of 13 serious attacks – some on innocent bystanders.

And a slew of drug transactions, home invasions and thousands of dollars in graffiti damage.

“I’m not unmindful of their (police) concerns, but I think the public’s right to know balances that,” Casaus said. “That these gangs have been tied to 11 homicides and people have been caught in the crossfire, people who aren’t involved in gangs, puts it directly in the public’s interest.”

I’d better go charge my cell-phone battery.

Maggie Shepard has covered police and crime for The Tribune since 2005.

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