Oklahoma City police Sgt. T.G. Childs' mother raised him near NE 23 and Martin Luther King Avenue. In middle school, he began to drift, cutting class, hanging out with the wrong crowd. That changed after a high-school coach got him interested in basketball. The focus honed on the courts resonated in all areas of life; he became an Oklahoma City police officer after graduating from high school and earning bachelor's and master's degrees.
“We're all put on this Earth to do something,” Childs said. “It just takes that spark.”
Childs works with the police force's gang intervention program — the Family Awareness and Community Teamwork or FACT — trying to provide that spark for young people. One of the program's two community centers is near Sooner Haven Apartments. It sports oversize couches, an Internet cafe, big-screen TV and an outdoor basketball court.
Facilitating passions, such as sports or poetry, through programs and mentoring is part of the police department initiative to help children and teenagers fight pressure to join gangs and commit crime.
Participants often come from single-parent households, or their parents are incarcerated, Childs said. Among the FACT alumni who recently started attending college are a Langston University drum major on scholarship for his musical abilities and several college athletes.
The gang problem
Police and community-minded groups are fighting an uphill battle against poverty and the lure of crime and gangs. Despite the efforts, gang membership is at an all-time high, and drive-by shootings are on the upswing.
At the same time, the police force is fighting crime with about 1,000 sworn officers, including new police recruits still attending academy. That's about 10 fewer officers than in 1989, although the city's population has grown by almost one-third since then, from 444,719 to 579,999.
Tim Hock, a detective with the force's gang unit, said police currently track a record 5,150 Oklahoma City gang members.
Police also tally drive-by shootings. Hock likened the annual pattern of those shootings to a roller-coaster ride. Since the unit was formed in 1993, peaks have hit about 250 and lows dip below 100.
This year, drive-bys are on the rise, with about 150 recorded.
Monretta Olden, 65, died after her home was sprayed with bullets. Her family told the media she was a retired bus driver.
It's not known whether her death is tied to gang violence, according to homicide investigators.
Of the 13 other homicides near Prospect Baptist Church, police have tied eight to gang violence.
Under direction from Police Chief Bill Citty, Oklahoma City police don't publicly discuss details about specific gangs, with the rationale that media coverage glorifies gang violence.
Hock said several gangs are operating on the east side, and police track about 120 different gang sets that operate across Oklahoma City. A set — such as the 107 Hoover Crips — is a group that falls under the umbrella of a larger gang.
“It's a back-and-forth,” Hock said of recent violence. “There's constant friction.”
Almost anything — a fight over a woman, a drug deal gone bad — can prompt violent escalations between gangs. The groups fight and kill as they ply various criminal trades involving drugs, prostitution and white-collar crimes such as counterfeiting and check forgery, Hock said. The spurts of violence end when police make enough arrests.
The problem is not confined to one area; it's all over the city, he said.
On patrol on the northeast side, officers ride by tire shops and garages, churches, apartment complexes, small homes and the occasional vacant lot. At Sooner Haven, most people out and about on a recent November night were young children. One boy carried a puppy he said was named Misty.
Elementary-age kids played together on a central play structure that police say doubles as a popular spot for drug dealers.
“By and large the people living here are good people,” said officer Karl Pulliam, who joined the force three years ago and whose patrol area includes Sooner Haven. “They're just trying to make it.”
Making the choice
Back at Prospect Baptist Church, the youth pastor shares with a group of middle school students a story from his days as a high school football player.
A rival teammate — who happened to be a drug dealer — was threatened by Walker's up-and-coming position on the team. The rival shoved him at practice, trying to provoke a fight.
Walker walked away because he had a lot to lose. The story ending is met with disbelief and a few giggles from the 17 neighborhood kids listening.
“You have to make that choice,” says Walker, an insurance agent who grew up in Oklahoma City. “Am I going to be different or am I going to be like everybody else?”
The children spend three hours at the church, singing gospel songs and “Happy Birthday,” eating, dancing and generally having fun, before parents arrive to take them home.
It's dark outside as boys erupt into a game of tag in front of the hall.
A small boy in a plaid jacket ducks out of the game of chase. He walks away from the church and into the neighborhood, alone.