LAURINBURG — Gang activity, says Fayetteville Police Detective Chris Kempf, continues to spread across the country like a virus — and small, rural communities like Scotland County are quickly becoming victims to the escalating violence.
Kempf, a member of a 13-officer Gun and Gang Violence Unit and secretary for the state Gang Investigators Association, schooled some 60 community leaders on Thursday during a two-hour “Gang Awareness” session organized by Eastpointe mental health agency at Scotland Memorial’s Dulin Center.
Kempf’s presentation, peppered with quotes from well-known gang members and sometimes graphic images, outlined what people should be looking for when identifying a gang presence, but also warned that most gangs continuously find new ways to display membership while others don’t claim readily identifiable symbols at all.
Though gang members are usually men, Kempf said that age and race are no longer a consideration. In Fayetteville, third only to Durham and Charlotte for gang violence in the state, Kempf said gangs have a presence in every elementary, middle and high school, public and private, as well as in prestigious schools such as West Point, and within the ranks of the military.
“Gangs don’t care about color,” he said. “They don’t care about sexual preference. They don’t even care about where you go to church, because the gang itself becomes a religion.”
Certain colors, clothing brands and hairstyles, such as notches cut into one or both eyebrows, can signify involvement in a gang, Kempf said, while graffiti and other signs, such as a pair of shoes dangling by their laces from a power line, can give clues as to what gangs are operating within a particular area.
In expounding on gang symbols, Kempf went over some of the more well-known hand signs and language used by gangs, playing for the audience music videos that featured popular rap artists paying homage to gang life.
“I’m just dumbfounded,” said Mary Draper, who works for North Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation. “I know we have gangs in Scotland County but I didn’t know what to look for.
“I’ve seen guys with splits in their eyebrows and never thought anything of it. … My daughter, she listens to that music, and I can see how my grandsons could get caught up in it.”
A widespread problem
Kempf detailed a brief history of a few well-known gangs, most of which started and remain in large cities while spreading through the movement of members to other areas and the prison system. Scotland Correctional Institution, which houses gang members from other counties, has helped to spread the problem locally, he said.
Many communities, from schools to parents to police departments, Kempf said, are plagued with denial or what he called the “not my baby syndrome” — but when he asked the audience how long gangs have been a problem in Scotland County, the resounding answer was “forever.”
“… These gangs are infested in smaller communities because they don’t have too many resources, and they know that,” Kempf said. “… If you have one gang member, you have a gang problem. It’s like a virus. … Basically, we need to get our heads out of the sand.”
Most gangs either start or are strengthened in prisons, Kempf said, where local gang members who are sent to jail learn from higher-ranking members, who will hold gang meetings under the pretense of holding a church service, which like lawyer’s visits are not subject to surveillance.
But some gangs, Kempf said, are started by those with otherwise bright futures — such as a group of top high school athletes at Southview High School who otherwise hold a ticket for success.
“All had football scholarships, all had their full life ahead of him, and they chose to get into this crap because they wanted to be local celebrities,” he said.
“I’ve always known that they were violent,” said Ann Kurtzman, clerk to the county commissioners and chair of the county’s Aging Advisory Council, during a break in the program. “But I’m realize now that they’re also extremely smart. I’m surprised at their values, which are not my values, and that they’re like a family.”
A new family
While people can join gangs because they live in a violence-ridden area and desire the protection a gang can provide, because mass media makes gang life “look cool,” or because their friends or family members are threatened if they don’t comply, Kempf said most are seeking a fellowship and bond they can’t find at home or with peers.
“Lack of proper parenting is one of primary reasons that youth become involved in street gangs,” he said.
Giving the group a scenario of a two-parent household with one parent who is in the military and the other in a third-shift job, Kempf said a child who leaves school, arrives at an empty home and has no one to confide in will find someone on the streets who will listen, and more likely than not, will eventually bring him into a gang.
Jeffery Maidment, administrator with the county’s Guardian ad Litem Program, agrees.
“It starts way back, even during pregnancy, when women are exposed to toxic environments and there’s abuse of alcohol and drugs,” he said. “… To me it’s a lack of supervision and a lack of core parental responsibility. Kids need that structure, they need discipline, and they need the love that families provide them. A lot of kids don’t have that.”
Abbi Overfelt can be reached at 910-276-2311, ext. 12. Follow her on Twitter @aoinscotco.