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Drugs, Guns, Gangs Mark Life in Little Rock

Crime: Surge of violence in Arkansas capital began in the late 1980s and hasn't stopped. Police admit that they can only contain it.

September 01, 2002|BRIAN SKOLOFF | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Like a mob hit, a pack of youths open fire with semiautomatic rifles on a passing car. A 3-year-old girl takes a bullet intended for her father, a suspected gang member. The bullet misses her brain, and she barely survives.

Mail service is suspended in a neighborhood after a bullet pierces a delivery truck. Two men are shot dead sitting in their car behind an abandoned house in an apparent drug deal gone bad. Nearby, a 24-year-old man is found dead on the sidewalk outside a beauty salon, shot in an apparent revenge killing.

A portion of the last six months on the streets of Little Rock: Drugs, guns and gangs.

"Daddy," as he's known on the streets, sits in a car at 14th and Booker talking about his grip on this neighborhood. Young, armed sentinels patrol nearby, watching for police and rival gang members.

"Man in the hole!" someone yells. Daddy slouches low in his seat, tips the brim of his baseball cap beneath his eyes and cocks his head slightly to the left as a police patrol car slowly passes.

"They got nothin' on me," he says. "Yeah, I've shot several people. That's just life on the streets. That's why I get respect.... Now, I help keep these kids from killing each other, establish order. Some of the killings before were useless."

It has been 10 years since the FBI ranked the per capita homicide rate of Little Rock ahead of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. In 1993, the city hit a record high of 76 murders. HBO highlighted the capital's plight with a documentary titled: "Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock."

Before the show aired in 1994, few spoke publicly about the surge of gang violence that began in the late 1980s. The documentary revealed the skeletons in the city's closet, and Mayor Jim Dailey says business leaders were frantic.

"You're not just killing the people on the streets, you're killing our economy," Dailey said he was told.

Gangs carved out territory in 10-block chunks. Gunshots rang in the night. Law enforcement task forces were formed, a youth curfew was enacted, neighborhood associations cropped up by the dozens, church groups mobilized and the Legislature passed strict sentence-enhancing bills.

Violence slowed considerably, and residents in gang-riddled neighborhoods no longer had to sleep in cast-iron bathtubs for protection from stray bullets.

But after serving fractions of their 10-and 20-year sentences, gang leaders are hitting the streets again. Recruiting is on the rise; police say there are 27 active gangs in Little Rock. Some officials say the best police can do is confine the violence, not stamp it out.

On a recent afternoon, Det. Todd Hurd, the police department's lead gang intelligence officer, and an undercover narcotics agent sit in an old Ford Explorer backed up to an abandoned house behind some bushes. Their eyes are glued on the opposite street corner where several youths sell crack.

Conversation shifts to a double killing that happened a week ago in the alley just behind this house.

"I don't know how comfortable I feel sitting here," the undercover officer says to Hurd. "Knowing what those guys were killed with" -- high-powered assault rifles.

They choose to stay put.

Both officers wear pistols on their hips. The backs of their seats are draped with bulletproof vests. Black, short-barreled shotguns are nestled in their armpits, the tips resting on the floorboard.

In the early 1980s, Little Rock didn't have a gang problem. But as violence surged in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, gangs spread throughout the country.

"Mothers in L.A. and Chicago decided that their kids had been beaten up or shot at too many times, so they put them on a bus and sent them to backwoods Little Rock," Hurd said.

Ken Richardson, a coordinator with New Futures for Youth, a city program designed to offer at-risk kids opportunities outside of gang life, said the city has made progress keeping kids out of gangs, but that the work will never be done.

"I tell the kids, 'You may not make $100 in 20 minutes, but rest assured, you don't have to worry about someone shooting you on the job making hamburgers,' " Richardson said.

Hurd is on the front line battling gangs.

"Right now, it's all about making money. It's all about dealing dope," Hurd said. "They look at the police like speed bumps. We're just out there trying to slow them down."

To do that, several times a year, the police stage "reversals," replacing street-corner drug dealers with undercover cops.

"This strikes at the heart of what moves the gangs. The drug money is the motivating factor, the whole scheme," Hurd said. "And it keeps the streets clean for a few days."

But the problems of poverty and desperation are still there.

"Some of these kids have a real concern about their own families. They do illegal things to help put food on the table," said Dorothy Nayles, of the city's Department of Community Programs. "More times than we'd like to see, you have kids involved in the wrong things for the right reasons."

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