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.”
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.”
Police Athletic League