Away from his colors, his homies, and his neighborhood, the gang-banger in the backseat of my patrol car was pleasant enough. He talked quietly, then leaned forward to take the weight off his handcuffs and just watched the clouds roll by.
Despite that, you could tell he was nervous. Having just turned eighteen, he was anticipating the criminal element’s version of the manhood ritual, adult jail, and his anxiety was easily understood.
So I spared the kid–I mean adult–the usual lecture. After all, he was a veteran of drive-by shootings, both as (alleged) triggerman and victim, had the blessings of the gang’s shot-caller, and walked the streets with a swagger that, if I were to replicate it, would likely pull several muscles. For all of that, he was just beginning to realize that his increased speed on the road to being a badass would only make the final stop come more rapidly and explosively.
“I’ve been looking for a job,” he told me with a hint of self-consciousness. I told him that was great, and joked that it might cut into his career as a gangster. He ignored my comment and instead talked about the ideas he had for work and the future. This kid–I mean adult–who had given me more dirty looks and frozen stares over the last couple years was talking about the future?
Instead of gangs and jail, we discussed options. In the end the conversation looked, smelled and tasted like progress, and it was hard not to get too excited and blow my cool. Gang-bangers (and cops) don’t like to get too squishy.
Will he make a change? We’ll see.
Still, I believe that encounters like this one represent an excellent chance at suppressing gang violence. Some of the kids and adults in thrall to the gang lifestyle have more arrests on their record than they have spent years on this planet, so clearly that routine has its limitations. More important to the future of these kids, and the safety of our communities, are the opportunities available to them to engage in activities that might keep them away from gangs.
Sure, that’s nothing new, but what got me thinking about this incident was Kathleen Merryman’s excellent piece on cuts to kids’ programs on Tacoma’s East Side. These cuts will, unfortunately, cause more kids to wander aimlessly through an area rife with gangs. Recruiting a bored kid wandering the street is obviously a lot easier than convincing one who is enjoying a worthwhile activity.
The end result of short-changing programs for kids, especially in vulnerable areas like Tacoma’s East Side, will be more lost kids and more crime. From a cop’s perspective this will mean more work, more overtime and more money.
Instead, I wish that money were spent at a playground near you.