About 10 years ago, gangs in Shelby County were confined to impoverished communities and their members were mostly young, African-American men from broken homes. These days, that isn't the case.
"There's no place left in Shelby County where we don't have gang members," says Reggie Henderson, chief prosecutor in the district attorney's gang and narcotics unit. "I prosecute kids who come from wealthy families where both the mother and father have goods jobs and nice homes. Some gangs that were traditionally African American have white members now. All the old restrictions are gone."
Law enforcement officials in Memphis say gang numbers are on the rise, although there is no comprehensive research on exactly how many gang members live in the area. As part of the Operation Safe Community plan unveiled earlier this month, the U.S. Attorney's office will lead an effort to answer that question.
But Shelby County district attorney Bill Gibbons estimates that there are about 15,000 gang members in Memphis. Gibbons keeps a database of known gang members -- those who admit membership after being arrested -- and there are approximately 8,000 individuals on that list alone.
"We have about 5,000 hardcore gang members whose day-to-day lives focus on gang activity," says Gibbons. "Then we have another 5,000 who are active in gangs but may also have jobs or go to college. Then we have another 5,000 that we call 'wannabes.' They're 12- to 14-year-olds seeking gang affiliation."
If Gibbons' numbers are accurate, 1.6 percent of the county's 900,000 residents are involved in a gang. And rising gang affiliation may be behind a recent spike in violent crime. From 2004 to 2005, the number of reported violent crimes involving three or more suspects -- an indication of gang activity -- increased by 38 percent.
Not only is gang affiliation on the rise, but members are targeting younger children in their recruiting efforts.
"Our greatest concern should be that recruiting of new gang members is occurring in elementary and middle school," says Mike Heidingsfield, director of the Memphis/Shelby County Crime Commission. "From the media, we get a sense that [gang members] are young men in their early 20s, but it begins long before that. Schools are the single biggest center for gang recruitment."
Gibbons says older gang members wait until school lets out, and then they talk to the kids in the time before their parents come home from work.
Henderson says there are over 100 active gangs in Memphis, but many of them are neighborhood sects of nationally affiliated gangs, such as the Vice Lords, Gangster Disciples, Crips, and Bloods. Unlike in most major cities, however, gangs in Memphis do not have a problem working together to make the local drug and sex trades more profitable. In August, the Memphis Police Department raided seven drug houses on Given Avenue in Binghamton. Police director Larry Godwin said that the illegal activity in the neighborhood involved Vice Lords and Gangster Disciples working together.
"Money seems to bring people together in Memphis," says Henderson. "If there's something to be gained, they can get along with each other."