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Number of gang-related crimes, both adult and juvenile, reported between 2009-2011
SPRINGFIELD, Tenn. — A group of young men stand on a street corner, across from the Bransford Youth Center, near a house suspected of being a gang hangout.
"Look to your left. That's how it all starts," says Springfield Alderman James Hubbard. "They start hanging on the corner. Usually by 13, they're schooled by the returning ex-convicts."
"Those boys right there? Eventually, they're killing each other."
If Springfield, a town of about 16,000 people 30 miles north of Nashville, sounds like an unlikely place for gangs, it shouldn't. In the past two months alone, three suspected gang members were arrested in the armed holdup of the Commerce Union Bank on South Main Street, a 26-year-old man was shot in the chest at the Stop One Market on the same street and Rashaud Singletary, 20, was found dead with a bullet wound to the back of his head near the youth center.
Gang-related crimes statewide rose by nearly 25 percent in 2011, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. They have more than doubled since 2005, the first year gang crimes saw a significant spike. But the real story isn't necessarily in places like Nashville or Memphis.
While larger cities unveil gang task forces, sweeping federal racketeering investigations and large-scale drug raids, the state's small towns are becoming incubators of gang violence. Since 2005, cities with fewer than 50,000 residents have seen gang crime more than triple.
Between 2001 and 2005, Bradley County — whose numbers include Cleveland — had three reported gang-related crimes, TBI data shows. Between 2006 and 2011, it had 51.
"By and large, the average citizen, I don't think, sees or knows what's really going on. There's a lot of people that are just in denial or unaware. If it doesn't impact them directly, they wouldn't know about it," said Springfield Police Chief David Thompson, who became chief here five months ago after working as an assistant city manager and police chief in Atlantic Beach, Fla. "We've reached a space now where you can't ignore what's happening."
Police lack resources
Rural towns often have small and sometimes ill-equipped police departments which can make the communities vulnerable and attractive to young criminals trying to dodge larger cities with more sophisticated gang units. Also, gangs find rural areas to be full of eager, new drug customers and devoid of competition from other gangs. For a while, at least.
The FBI's annual National Gang Threat Assessment in 2011 was blunt in its appraisal of gangs' interest in these untapped areas.
"Gang members are migrating from urban areas to suburban and rural communities to recruit new members, expand their drug distribution territories, form new alliances and collaborate with rival gangs and criminal organizations for profit and influence," the report said.
In Tennessee, gang incidents across the state rose about 110 percent from 2005 through 2011, according to the TBI. But remove larger cities like Nashville and Memphis — areas often far more associated with gang violence — and the picture is far more troubling.
From 2005 to 2011, cities with less than 50,000 residents saw gang crimes rise 232 percent.
"Gangs gravitate to where business is good, typically illegal drugs, illegal weapons and prostitution," said Kristin Helm, spokeswoman for the TBI. "Being in more rural areas, sometimes their criminal activity is less detectable from law enforcement and they aren't competing with a different illegal gang across the street for business."
Lebanon Police Chief Scott Bowen, whose department has grappled with gangs in recent years, said that big city successes can become small town problems.
"When Nashville cracks down on them, you know where they end up? They end up in Lebanon," he said. "They were pushing people out of their public housing and into our public housing. We know that as a fact."
Just identifying the problem can be difficult for small communities. Gang incidents are likely underreported, authorities acknowledge. Prior to this year, for example, Springfield had reported to the TBI only two gang incidents from 2001 through 2011. Those same records show that 53 of 95 Tennessee counties reported zero gang incidents in 2011.
When Thompson came on as chief earlier this year, he said people in the community told him Springfield didn't have a gang problem. "But the more I looked around, the more I was seeing things," the chief said.
A week after being told gangs weren't an issue there, his department responded to five shootings. At one attack, investigators found a burning bandana in the road — a not-too-subtle warning left by one gang to its rivals. One of Thompson's officers, charged with doing a survey of gang graffiti in the neighborhood, returned to the department with 300 photos in a single day.
"How can you ignore or how can you not recognize the gang activity here?" he asked.
Ordeal in Columbia
Sometimes something terrible has to happen to get the community's attention.
In Columbia, Tenn., it happened in April 2009. It was a beautiful Sunday, right after church, when a bullet flew through Relland Stovall's window and struck him in the head, killing him.
He had nothing to do with gangs — he was a school janitor, well known in the community for helping out senior citizens on his block. His death underscored the random ripple effect of gang violence. Far from being a target, Stovall was killed by a stray bullet from a Crips gang member meant for a rival.
Columbia City Manager Paul Boyer said that Stovall's death was the city's defining moment on its battle with gangs. He recalled leaving his memorial service and feeling the resolve of a city that had been pushed too far.
"When we walked out of church that night, I knew we had the citizens," he said. "That was a put-down-your-foot day. They've had enough."
Today, the city has a vigorous neighborhood watch system with residents like Sherley Jones, a retired military man who once used his shotgun to chase a gang member from his front yard.
"He pulled a pistol out on me," Jones said. "I came back outside with my shotgun and pistol and said, 'Mine is bigger than yours, let's see what happens.'"
Jones helped rally community support. Today, he sees police officers walking the beat, talking with residents and asking if they have any problem. Because of that, he says, the gang problem has improved. In 2010, there were 111 gang incidents in Columbia and one year later there were just 26.
"What success we have, I don't think we could have obtained by ourselves," Boyer said. "The community, they just said, 'No, we need your help and we're gonna help and we're not putting up with it anymore.'"