CINCINNATI - What was formerly a taboo topic for police, the pervasiveness of gang-related activity in the city is now being publicly acknowledged and actively fought against.
Just a few years ago, top police brass rarely, if ever, used that four-letter word, normally referring to gangs as “groups.” If a shooting was gang-related, they’d prefer to say “group" or "member-involved incident.”
But with the city hiring two external chiefs in recent years and as homegrown cops receive more training on gang violence, their language is softening and the department’s recent actions targeting gang members seems to have prompted city residents to take notice.
“I think why people have been a little reluctant to use the word gang is because we don’t have a Latin King set for example,” said Blackwell, referencing more well-known, generational gangs like those in Los Angeles, Chicago or Philadelphia. “Call it what you want, the behavior is the same.”
District 5 commander Capt. Paul Neudigate, who recently led an effort to shut down two suspected gang hangouts in Northside this year, said by publicly recognizing gangs, city residents are more aware of what they can do to help police.
“I think it would be a little disingenuous to say we don’t have organized groups of individuals that commit crimes,” Neudigate said. “Different chiefs have different mindsets about what’s going on, and I don’t think anyone was trying to hide that we do have people that engage in this lifestyle, but I just really think it comes down to the community knowing that we have these groups.”
Police have started working in a planned and more public manner to tighten the screws. In recent weeks, intelligence-based gang enforcement initiatives have targeted more than 100 suspected gang members and arrested 63 from Avondale and East Price Hill alone.
“Our intelligence-led units go after those hardcore criminals that are responsible for the shootings and the gang-related violence in the city,” Blackwell said. “We are reaping the benefits of an intelligence-led department. We strategize and identify trends and all the minutia involved in violent crime – we’re paying attention to this.”
Command staff with CPD say that despite the lack of well-organized, large gangs, the smaller, more nimble gangs in Cincinnati are behind a vast majority of the violent crime.
The intelligence unit, working in concert with the newly formed gang enforcement squad and officers at the district level, are working to gather more information on gangs, their members and their area of operations and activities.
Under the supervision of former homicide unit commander Capt. Bridget Bardua, who now oversees the narcotics and vice section, the gang enforcement squad is staffed with two sergeants and 10 investigators.
“We talk about it a lot that we have a gang issue,” Blackwell said. “It’s a focus for this department, coming directly from this office.”
So far, police already have created a record of about 100 gangs and 1,000 suspected members operating from different parts of the city, Blackwell said, no matter the size of the group.
"We're going after the guys who are committing the crimes in our neighborhoods," Executive Assistant Chief Paul Humphries said. "We're using crime analysis as a way to identify them – who they're hanging out with, who they're committing crimes with, and who might be a possible victim."
Gangs have their strongest foothold in some of the poorest areas of the city.
In Avondale, police arrested suspected gang members of the “Valley Boyz” and the “Savage Gang.” In East Price Hill, police targeted the Slutty Boys, Skeppbandz, Get the Gwap and Cincinnati White Boys.
District 3 commander Capt. Daniel Gerard and District 4 commander Capt. Mike Neville both said all of the gangs were involved in heroin trafficking. The East Price Hill gangs are suspected of gun trafficking also.
Late last year, police launched a probe into the Tot Lot Posse in the West End and arrested 27 suspected members and dozens of guns off the streets in February. Authorities also arrested Tot Lot gang leader Julius White, 24, who supplied the gang network with heroin.
The purpose of the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence is to identify and arrest the major players involved in this kind of activity. Strengthening CIRV was part of the $1 million plan announced by Mayor John Cranley earlier this year after a rash of killings and robberies. In addition, the city allocated another $1 million in police overtime to focus on hotspot areas.
Authorities say police departments that work at building relationships with the community are better equipped to combat gang violence. Not surprisingly, the use of best practices for investigating gangs, such as allocating overtime pay to allow officers to work around the clock, have the most success with closing cases.
“We’ve promised them that we know who you are, we know who you run with, we know the crimes you engage in and the places where you engage in those crimes,” Gerard
said at the June 17 press conference outlining District 3 gang enforcement targets. “We’re focusing our resources on those areas.”
When asked what people can expect in the future, Blackwell offered a simple and direct response.