Authorities have observed gang activity in all 77 counties in Oklahoma, dispelling the myth of gangs as a purely an urban problem.
The gangs law enforcement officials fight in the state are about as varied as you can imagine, said Curtis Underwood, a Lawton police officer and board member of the Oklahoma Gang Investigators Association.
Police in Duncan have dismissed gang activity as motivation in the shooting death of East Central University student Christopher Lane on Aug. 16. But that doesn't mean residents who have claimed gangs are active in the community are wrong.
“Our last report back in 2010 showed all 77 counties had some form or another of gang activity,” Underwood said. “So you really can't say it's just the big cities or the small towns. There is no one norm to it.”
Capt. Dexter Nelson, a spokesman for Oklahoma City police who used to work in the department's gang unit, said gangs as most people understand them first started forming in the city in the 1980s. Some of that early activity came from the West Coast, where the gang lifestyle first took hold. Others were formed by locals who emulated what they saw.
“Our gang unit reports that they have identified 120 different gang sets in Oklahoma City,” Nelson said. “These gang sets include black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian and Aryan (white supremacist) gangs. Some gangs are more organized, disciplined and sophisticated than others.”
Gang activity in urban centers spreads into suburban communities and beyond, Nelson said.
“Everyone has access to transportation today,” Nelson said. “Criminals commit crimes in their own neighborhoods before branching out to other areas of opportunity. The key is to limit the opportunity for crime to occur in the first place.”
Many of the larger gangs operating in Oklahoma City and Tulsa have affiliates in smaller communities that may coordinate with each other.
Other gangs might be limited to one community.
“Size does matter, but gangs are gangs, no matter where you are from,” Underwood said.
Part of the challenge when discussing gangs is defining the term, Underwood said. There are state and federal criteria for determining whether someone is in a gang. Whether the person self-identifies as a gang member is the first one.
Criteria also include the use of tattoos to brand members and committing crimes as a group. But it doesn't take dozens of people for a gang to fulfill those criteria. A handful of people committing crimes centered in one neighborhood or apartment complex can qualify as a gang.
“All gangs exploit areas that are less equipped or less willing to confront them, whether that is a smaller jurisdiction with limited police resources, a fractured neighborhood or a single residential street where neighbors don't know each other and rarely communicate,” Nelson said.
Outlaw motorcycle clubs such as the Hell's Angels also are considered gangs by law enforcement.
The key for all communities fighting gangs is to keep residents involved and engaged, Nelson said. Strong neighborhoods aren't a good habitat for gangs to take hold.
“Gang members are like water; they seek areas of least resistance,” Nelson said. “If an area or neighborhood offers resistance by calling the police every time that they see illegal or questionable behavior and they look out for their neighbors, gangs and crime in general will often move on to an easier and more opportune area to exploit.”
Just as gangs coordinate, so do law enforcement officials. Many participate in the Oklahoma Gang Investigators Association, and when one agency follows evidence that crosses into another jurisdiction, it is crucial for investigators to work together, Underwood said.
“We try to communicate,” Underwood said. “Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Lawton are working together to help each other out in their gang problems. It is a joint effort when we are fighting this kind of crime.”
Our last report back in 2010 showed all 77 counties had some form or another of gang activity. So you really can't say it's just the big cities or the small towns. There is no one norm to it.”
The Lawton police officer is a board member of the Oklahoma Gang Investigators Association