Detective Tim Hock has pursued drive-by shooters, homicide suspects and robbery suspects in every corner of Oklahoma City for nearly two decades. He hunts down “the worst of the worst.”
Hock is a gang unit investigator for the Oklahoma City Police Department. He has been a part of the gang unit for 19 years — 10 years on the street gang team and nine as a detective.
“The entire time I was on the street team, the turnover was very low. Guys got over there; they loved what they were doing,” Hock said.
“In the last so many years, we have a little bit higher turnover, but it’s still a pretty coveted position because you get to do nothing but hunt bad guys. You get to do what I classify as real, hard police work, which is hunt the worst of the worst.”
Those in that position endure a headache unique to the gang unit — the victims they encounter and their lack of cooperation.
“Investigating gang crimes is like digging a hole in a mud puddle. You are trying to do all your work and identify the bad guys, and you get no cooperation from one side,” Hock said. “Some of them will just flat tell you, ‘I’m not going to talk to you; I’m not going to tell you who did it; I know who did it; I’ll take care of it.’
“It’s not like a lot of the other detective units, where you have victims that are cooperative with you and will give you information.”
Hock said victims are uncooperative about 75 percent of the time. Police officers investigating gang-on-gang crime often are considered a victim’s enemy as much as the suspect is, he said.
In gang crime investigations, someone will be the victim one week and then become the suspect the next, gang unit Lt. Stuart May said.
Most gang violence is targeted at other gang members, while violence against the general public is either a crime of opportunity or is collateral damage in order to get to the true target — a rival gang member, investigators said.
“Gang members target other gang members with most of their violence. You hear all these horror stories of gang initiations where you see a car without headlights and you flash your lights at them, and it’s a gang initiation and they are going to come around and shoot you,” Hock said. “That’s not true. There has not been one documented case in the United States of that,” Hock said.
Gang-related violence helped push the number of homicides in Oklahoma City to the third-highest year ever last year, Oklahoma City police Chief Bill Citty said.
Gang-related and gang-involved homicides almost doubled in 2012, Citty said.
“We do (work with homicide detectives) pretty much on a daily basis, not because the homicide increase involves gang members, but when working homicide you want to talk to anyone who knows anything,” May said. “They will come to us with a nickname or something that may be gang-related, just to find a witness. They may be coming to us on a daily basis just so we can try to track some people down.”
The gang unit has four drive-by investigators and two street teams consisting of seven uniformed officers in marked police vehicles — six officers and one lieutenant per team.
The drive-by investigators handle gang-involved assault and battery shootings, May said. Each one has more than 20 years experience with the police department.
The uniformed street teams make initial contact with gang members when dispatch receives a gang-related call and address problems with gangs as they come up, May said.
Hock said the learning curve is slow. Gang unit officers must learn the demographics and the geography of the entire city.
“You might be working a drive-by shooting up at Lyrewood in northwest Oklahoma City, then be called down to SE 44 and Bryant because they had some instances down there. You have got to learn what gangs and what gangbangers are in that part of town as opposed to the part of town you just left,” Hock said.
Battle for next generation
Since gang recruitment often starts in middle school, the Oklahoma City Police Athletic League leads programs at seven elementary schools in the Oklahoma City School District to help children learn how to avoid falling into the gang lifestyle.
Two programs for fourth- through sixth-graders teach students discipline, respect, self-worth, self-esteem and how to make good life choices, said Ken Banks, Police Athletic League martial arts/challenge instructor.
“We found that it was a really vital time in a young person’s life with a lot of peer pressure. In the seventh, eighth, ninth grade, they kind of have their mind made up, so if we can get them at their critical point, we can change a lot of direction in a lot of young people,” Banks said.
In addition to martial arts mentorship classes, the Police Athletic League offers the challenge program — a class of 20 children focused mostly on discipline and designed specifically for children known for being disruptive, Banks said. The programs started in 2004.
“The one thing I have seen that makes me think the program works is I have seen students come back and I’ve seen them grow up and they are either in the military or have a family,” Banks said. “They always remember a lot of the things they learned as fourth- through sixth-graders and some even talk about how they apply some of those lessons to their lives as young adults.
“To me, knowing that and hearing that from several students who came up through the program, it’s a worthwhile program.”
Yet despite the programs’ long-term successes, the gang unit still sees older gang members being replaced by young recruits.
“It seems like it is never ending, because you have generations of people. Some are getting out; we will talk to some who tell us, ‘No, I’m not involved in that anymore. I have a family now,’ and we have other ones that are 13, 14, 15 years old that are taking their places,” May said.
“In the gang culture, you’ll hear ‘first gen,’ ‘second gen,’ ‘third gen.’ They are talking about generations of young men and women coming up in that culture and kind of perpetuating that lifestyle. It’s more disheartening than anything else.”