Gangs are supposed to be a "big city" problem. They shouldn't be an issue in "small town" Kansas — the kind of communities where people smile as they pass by each other on the sidewalk or wave to each other across the street, the kind of communities where business owners remember customers by name.
However, law enforcement officials across the state still see signs of gang activity — even in towns like Newton. And ignoring the problem won't make it go away.
"Gangs are as much a small town problem as drugs are a small town problem," said Nef Torres with the Newton Police Department. "Lots of times they develop hand in hand."
"It's important that folks in other communities realize that it's a real problem in parts of our state," said Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt. "... It becomes a real sore on a community and makes it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to live, work and raise their families in a community."
Torres has been tracking gang activity in Newton since 1993, when he began working here. Around that time, the county attorney started seeing reports come through relating to gang activity and asked law enforcement officers if they were seeing evidence of gangs while on patrol.
Gang experts were brought in from the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office. They rode around town to see if they could identify gang activity. After only 20 minutes, they asked to come back to the office.
"They had seen enough," Torres said. "Yes, there's a gang presence here."
How did gangs develop a presence in a small town like Newton? Torres said the rise of gang activity can be attributed to several causes. Certain programs relocated inner city youth to suburban areas, and those youth brought gang culture with them. Media exposure to the gang lifestyle — such as through "gangster rap" — made the lifestyle seem cool to kids. Tensions between different segments of town built up gang alliances, and kids who traveled to larger cities to visit relatives sometimes brought the gang lifestyle back with them. Some gang members created their own gangs while others affiliated with gangs from other places.
"Those were a lot of different elements that played into this becoming noticed by law enforcement in this jurisdiction," Torres said.
Gang presence often is manifested through graffiti or attire (such as wearing certain colors or brands). However, if gang members are in a "dress down" phase, they try to blend in and are more difficult to spot. A gang presence also can lead to an uptick in crime, such as drug dealing or even human trafficking. Gangs can become territorial, leading to conflicts between gangs and citizens or conflicts between rival gangs.
Youth sometimes join gangs to try to fill "a piece that they're missing," Torres said. "... You have folks that are looking for something to be part of, something to belong to."
"Gangs can offer a seductive opportunity for social structure and support," Schmidt added.
Gangs can replace family, school or other ambitions, and they teach members to gain respect through fear. While the gang lifestyle may appear attractive to members, in reality it leads to a bleak future, ending with incarceration or an early death, Torres said.
Although Torres has seen a resurgence in gang activity lately, he said this is not out of the ordinary and it's normal for gang activity to go in cycles. Newton is not "overrun by gangs."
While gang activity can't be completely eradicated, officers can take steps to stop it from spreading. This includes removing graffiti and cracking down on gangs. He said Newton has developed a reputation as a place "bad guys" want to avoid.
Schmidt also is excited about the work being accomplished by a statewide anti-gang network. "Gang Free Kansas" grew out of a program in Wichita and Sedgwick County designed to combat gang violence. Schmidt was approached by Gang Free Wichita to take the concept statewide. "Gang Free Kansas" now serves as an umbrella organization coordinating diverse local anti-gang efforts.
"There's a lot of good work going on in our state in pushing back against gang activity," Schmidt said.
While it can be difficult to break free of the gang lifestyle, Torres knows former gang members who are now successful parents and members of the workforce. Better circles of friends, faith and education can play a role in preventing gang members from relapsing.
He said it's also important for community members to call law enforcement if they see or suspect gang activity.
"It is a matter of community members to really believe and understand that 'this neighborhood is my neighborhood' — it doesn't belong to the gang," he said. "Embrace that sense of belonging in your neighborhood and your area."
For more information, visit www.gangfreekansas.org.