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Little G's

As gang members get younger, schools and law enforcement struggle to turn the tide.

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Sergeant Steve Harris is a shift commander with the county's Street Crimes Task Force. Recently, he arrested a 15-year-old gang member from what he calls "a nice home."

"They weren't rich, but you could tell the kid didn't want for anything," Harris says. "You should have seen his mother's face when we showed her the gang handbook we found beneath his mattress."

In the wake of two high school shootings within the past month, politicians and police are encouraging parents to get involved with prevention.

"It's disproportionately a black problem, and it's time for us to come together and address it," says former school board member and current City Council member Wanda Halbert. "The system has to allow a collaborative effort, including listening more to parents, and that's not happening."

Harris agrees that parents need to be involved. "It doesn't matter what type of neighborhood you live in. These kids see it as some type of macho game," he says. "The gangs are pushing harder and harder to get young members."

Memphis police director Larry Godwin pulled his department out of the joint city/county Metro Gang Unit two years ago, and Godwin says Operation Blue Crush has put law enforcement on the front lines against gangs.

In 2006, the Metro Gang Unit made 66 arrests. Last year, under Blue Crush, the Memphis Police Department made 1,500 gang-related arrests.

"With Blue Crush, we're more effective in going after the gangs by concentrating on what they do instead of who they are," Godwin says. "It's not illegal to be in a gang. ... If they were getting together to bake cakes, that would be great with us, but if you rob, steal, sell drugs, we're going to put you in jail."

Using a 10-point system to identify gang members, the Memphis Police Department has amassed a database of 8,900 active and known gang members in the Memphis area. Memphis mayor Willie Herenton has suggested a similar system to assist parents and teachers in identifying potential recruits.

Harris says older gang members "feed off the young," getting them to run errands and do various jobs.

"What we've found is that [gang] affiliation means nothing once they get older and graduate into real crime. They'll do business with anyone," Harris says. "It's just about getting their money."

On a recent morning, Harris' unit was about to make arrests in a major investigation. An undercover officer pulled a file on a young woman affiliated with the Gangster Disciples. Her case record is 52 pages long.

"And she's just 21," the officer said. "I did not get into law enforcement to be busting kids. But that's what it's coming to."

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