Capital Times (Madison, WI); 12/6/1993

Capital Times (Madison, WI)


SECTION: Local/State
Dane County sheriff’s detective Bill Searls has been assigned to the Blue Blanket anti-drug task force since August 1992 and is scheduled to stay with the unit through next year. That’s a far cry from his first job as a patrol officer in the town of Richland Center.
Searls, who has attended gang training seminars in Chicago, Minneapolis and elsewhere, is one of the Blue Blanket’s gang specialists and a member of the Midwest Gang Investigators Association.
While the Lone Rock native couldn’t comment on the reportedly gang-related Thanksgiving eve shootings in the Broadway-Simpson neighborhood, he sat down recently with Jeff Richgels of The Capital Times to discuss gang issues in general.
Q.: Some say local gang activity has been downplayed in the past. Is it being overplayed now?
A.: No, gangs have always been there since I came here eight years ago. It’s just that every once in a while you’ll see something like a shooting that will jump it up into the news. I would say it’s steadily getting worse. I’ve never seen it get better. Every day, every month, every year, there’s more gang members, more drugs and more violence.
Q: What is causing the gang problem to get worse?
A: It started when crack came. We had gangs before crack, but they were somewhat manageable. But once the crack explosion hit here in mid-1990, the gangs got more violent. There was more money to be made, more dealers on the street and open-air drug markets. Crack is just that much more profitable. Without a doubt, crack is the biggest thing gangs do in Madison. In Chicago, they do other things – intimidations, extortions – where they’re more organized and more turf-oriented.
Q: Can you quantify how the Madison gang problem conpares to big cities like Chicago?
A: I can’t compare Madison to Chicago, simply because of the population. I look at other cities our size: Fort Wayne, Ind., Des Moines, Iowa. They’re getting worse, too, and it’s mostly because of crack.
Q: How much serious “turfing” goes on in Madison, compared to bigger cities?
A: Turf in Chicago was decided way before you were ever born. If you’re born into that area, unless you rise above it, you become a member of that area’s gang. You feel safe in that area. They have what they call street tax. You can sell (drugs) in that area, but you pay a tax to the local gang. In Madison, we don’t have that. Things are very open, very fluid. As long as everyone’s making their money, you have separate gang members literally standing next to each other selling and it’s acceptable as long as they don’t cut each other’s sales.
Q: Is turfing an evolutionary thing so we would expect to see more over time?
A: I don’t think you’ll see real serious turfing here until drug dealing gets competitive – either more members start to sell, or the source in Chicago dries up. As long as everyone’s making money, everyone’s going to be all right. You’re going to have small disputes, you’re going to have a shooting now and then, you’re going to have flare-ups – that’s part of the drug business. But it
doesn’t mean it’s over turf. Gang members just traditionally settle their disputes, whether it be over a girl or whatever, with violence.
Q: Why are gangs so macho? Seemingly minor things always seem to lead to conflict and violence.
A: I can’t answer that. That’s part of the mentality, a trademark. Everything is very macho, very anti-female. They so-called disrespect each other – a slight insult – and they pull a gun and start shooting.
Q: Is there such a thing as winning against gangs – totally eliminating them?
A: Once crack comes, it’s a drug war. And we’ve lost every drug war we’ve ever fought. The United States likes drugs. And the gangs are feeding off drugs. So if you ask me, “Can we eradicate drugs?” – no, we can’t. We can do our best. But if you could take the drugs out of gangs, then I think we could manage. We can get to the young ones with education and programs, take the older ones and arrest them. Once you throw drugs into the cycle, it’s a drug war, not really a gang war.
Q: Is further gang violence inevitable for Dane County?
A: If you ask me if we can count on a couple acts of gang violence a year involving serious injury and death, I’d say it’s going to happen.
Q: Is it really basic economics for kids in these low-income areas? Do they see no other hope of financially getting the “good life”?
A: In Chicago, yes. In Madison, no. Because we have opportunity here. Safe schools, jobs, opportunity. What frustrates me are the people from Chicago who bring those deep-rooted problems with them and start dealing here.
Q: So there’s hope for saving Madison kids who are in or drifting toward gangs?
A: Yes. Not all of them, because some are hard-core true believers that you will never get out of gangs. That’s a small segment. The peripheral ones we have a chance with.
Q: What do gangs offer kids?
A: A sense of belonging – like a family – that they’re going to take care of them. That they’ll provide them with safety and an opportunity to earn money. Gang kids traditionally are easily led, want to belong, have low self-esteem, and they think that’s what they’re getting from the gangs. But in reality they aren’t, because the gangs control their lives – they tell them what to do, where to go, to be lookouts and do this and do that.
Q: So, aside from the obvious strong families, what can be done to persuade these kids that gangs are not for them?
A: Most teenagers, regardless of who they are, don’t want to be told what to do, by their parents or anyone. They rebel. And what does the gang do? The gang tells you who you’re going to date or hang out with, what jewelry and clothes you’re going to wear and what you’re going to do all the time. I tell kids, “Do you want to give up your freedom? You’re rebelling against your parents, do you want to go walk into this?”
Q: What do gangs mean to the average middle-class resident of Dane County?
A: It affects their lives in a lot of ways. Some of these gang members go to school with their kids. The stray bullet may end up hitting an innocent person. It affects their quality of life. It affects their tax dollars. Your city is only as good as everyone in it. You just can’t write off part of it. If you do that, it grows like a cancer.
Q: Can you put a number on the number of gangs and gang members operating locally?
A: We have a couple of different gangs in Madison, but we have a lot of different gang members here coming up from Chicago and other areas claiming allegiance to different gangs. It’s hard for me to put numbers on people, because it’s so fluid. I would say we probably have a couple hundred hard-core gang members that are dealing drugs.

Memo: The last two questions and answers were not published

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