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Local leaders explain the current gang climate in Goshen
Goshen News - 5/21/2022
May 21—GOSHEN — The gangs are here to stay, Goshen police and community leaders say, but that doesn't necessarily mean the Goshen community is unsafe.
Community leaders believe they're doing everything they can to mitigate future problems.
"Almost every community in northern Indiana and across the county is probably dealing with some level of gang issue," said Goshen City Police Department Assistant Chief Shawn Turner.
Turner was hired in 1996, and even then the city had its share of problems.
"What I saw during that time was a lot of the gang issues revolved around people that had disputes and they'd take these feuds out into the streets sometimes and there were baseball bats and fists that would be used," he explained.
Today, Goshen police are seeing guns as a means of expression, which is different than local gang action historically and for Turner, that's a big cause of concern.
"I think we've been very fortunate right now that we haven't had an innocent bystander get hurt," Turner said, "But we've had some close calls in some of our shooting incidents where they've gone through homes and other places where we felt like if that person would have been positioned just differently, this could have been very impactful to someone not even involved in the gang lifestyle."
The uptick in gun and gang-related violence is recent, he confirmed, explaining that lulls in activity are a part of the cyclical nature of any gang or group of gangs. Goshen police, activists, and leadership also enjoyed the times of low activity, but are now having to construct a game plan.
"Because of that lull where you had periods where it didn't exist and now it exists again, we're playing catch up. We are," Turner said. "Our idea now is that we need to stay current on our intelligence and that zero-tolerance attitude ...
"I think it needs to be known too that the intent of the Goshen Police Department is we are going to have zero tolerance for anyone that we believe is involved in gang activity," he continued. "As much as we want to educate, and help people, and help them through the decisions that they're making, especially the impactful ones at a young age, I think it should be known for the people that have committed to the gang lifestyle, that the idea for the Goshen Police Department is that we're not cutting breaks. This is a zero-tolerance mindset as it relates to this uptick in gun violence. We are taking it very seriously and we're going to be having different initiatives to try to curtail what's happening in the city limits."
The gangs of Goshen issue has caused Goshen police, city leaders, and other groups to band together in an effort to work toward lessening the local impact of gangs in any way they're able to.
"It's a complicated issue and we're trying to work through it," Turner said. "As a community our size, it's not an easy thing to work through, and it is a shocking thing for a lot of people that haven't had that exposure. We're on that verge where we're a small city still but we have big-city crime sometimes and having to deal with that as a police officer is not easy because we know that affects the community members and their perception of this community. But I would tell you, I think most of our officers and most of our community members feel that this is still a very safe community."
STILL WORKING TOGETHER
Lt. Jamie Hochstetler, a gang intelligence officer for the Goshen Police Department, said the fact that the police department receives calls about a possible shooting is an indication that the community is still working together, and that's a good sign.
"Goshen is still 'see-something, say-something,'" he said. "We have a lot of people intertwined that are still willing to at least call us and say, 'Hey, I'm pretty sure I just heard some gunshots.' There are places where that's not the case — like, the police are not contacted. We have calls of gunfire, where they may not know where it was but they heard it, and we respond to the area and we don't locate anything at the crime, but somebody still was willing to step up and call, and that is huge because ultimately the community is what's going to curtail this a lot- the police and the community working together is what's going to stop it."
Since gang activity has escalated in the last year Goshen Mayor Jeremy Stutsman, the Goshen Police Department and other staff have been reaching out to community and church leaders, as well as parents, in discussion on how to work together to better the situation.
"We are working to get ahead of this and will need the help of our community and families to help reach our young residents," Stutsman said.
GANG TASK FORCE
The mayor has been working on the creation of a gang task force, with details soon to come, which will include educators, church and community leaders, and members from the Goshen Police Department, as well as other city staff from the mayor's office.
"I think it would be very naive to think that the gangs will ever go away," Turner continued. "I don't think that's ever going to happen. Our goal is to get them to understand that this has real-life consequences. If we can try to get guns out of (youth) hands and give them alternatives to gang life, or alternative ways to work out their problems so that they don't become violent, that's ultimately where we are trying to go, but that's easier said than done."
Included in the task force is Boys & Girls Club CEO Kevin Deary, who is also a gang-certified prevention and interventionist thanks to his background with gangs in his hometown, north of Boston.
"What I'm really proud of is Mayor Stutsman is aware of that and he's willing to lead," he said. "It is a community challenge."
Deary explained his belief on how exactly gang influence finds its way to Michiana.
"Gangs mainly come from the working poor, and the working poor are here because that's where the jobs are," he said. "So when there's no jobs, you're going to see, many times, a decrease of people. Although in 2008, surprisingly enough, we did not see a huge drop of population. A lot of them stayed here and got other jobs ... which tells me that people are well-rooted in Goshen and Elkhart County. They're not going anywhere. That's good for the workforce and good for the community, but it also brings with it the gang influence."
He said manufacturing comes from big cities due to the ease of accessible transportation hubs. In large cities, manufacturing employees often live in low-income regions, where neighborhoods may be rougher.
"Kids learn to stick together, and gangs initiate because they're looking for protection," he said.
When they move, looking for a new job, to Elkhart County and its massive manufacturing community, the story doesn't change.
"If somebody dropped me into another country and I didn't speak the language and I came across four or five Americans who spoke English, I would hang around with them a lot, and that may be quantified as a gang, but I feel comfortable with them," Deary said. "It's important to know that gangs are not a Latino problem. We just have a heavy concentration of a few gangs because of our population."
In Goshen, Deary said, gang influences are seen predominantly at the junior high, high school and even older elementary students.
"One of the things we talk about is teaching teachers how to identify," he said. "Kids will constantly doodle in their notebooks, and there are gang alphabets, almost hieroglyphics."
Deary said in his role at the Boys & Girls Club, one of his goals is to curtail gang increase in the region, by offering the club camaraderie as an alternative.
"I'm in the business of protecting children and protecting communities — that's what I do," he said. "I defend the Boys & Girls Clubs from anybody coming on our property or getting near our kids or staff. That means when we have kids that come in that may be on the fringes of gangs, our whole goal is to educate them to get out of the gangs, to give them positive alternatives ... If you can give kids a positive alternative where they receive the same sense of belonging and a sense of unconditional love, that's band or music or sports or artists, give them the alternative to say no to the gangs. Gangs exist because they can recruit from a pool or needy, hurting kids."
When asked why Goshen leadership didn't begin the process of halting gang activity sooner, Deary explained, "They've been in remission. Frankly, it's just been little things here and there, no big deal, but then all the sudden, it flashes up and there's been more shootings, more drive-bys, more high visibility of gang members in full regalia, and we're like, 'Whoa, we know exactly what this means,' And then two boys murder somebody at 1 o'clock in the afternoon at a 7-Eleven."
Deary and other community advocates express a sentiment regarding how gangs construct loyalty. For a child or a teen who feels unwanted or not a part of anything, the allure to join a gang can be tempting.
"They demand exceptional loyalty because they give exceptional loyalty," Deary said. "That is attractive to a kid who doesn't have the greatest home life and doesn't have anybody in their life that's loyal to them. So when somebody comes along and offers them things they can't get and they have the assumption of power and authority and belonging and love, that's very hard to say no to."
Turner continued the sentiment.
"Once they're there, that feeling of belonging, that's no different than a sports team, I guess in that you start feeling some allegiance toward a specific group or sports team, then you're willing to do whatever needs to be done to show that your team is the best," he said.
Hochstetler explained that the temptation of gangs can be especially dangerous to youth.
"It's commonality, honesty," he said. "It's a group of friends, and they have common interests, basically. When we're young, we have a need to fit in. Everyone deals with peer pressure."
Unfortunately, as opposed to sports, there are real-life consequence in the decision to join a gang, Turner added.
"I don't think that they are thinking those things clearly through when we talk to them," Turner said. "When we talk to them, if we ask what a five-year plan is for them, they have none. Their idea is to live for the day and they talk about the inevitability of whatever might happen to them. There's no clairvoyant thought of where they want their life to go and how they want their life to proceed."
Deary recounted an incident when he was fresh to the area, and learning about the Goshen gang situation.
"Back the early 2000s, late '90s, Poseidon was on the court lawn over here," he said. "Somebody broke Poseidon's hands and stole his staff because at the end of it is [a gang symbol] and nobody understood why they damaged just that part. Normally, you'd break the head or something. As soon as I walked over there, I knew exactly where it went. It's sitting in somebody's house right now. They wanted that staff and that's exactly what they stole. It was probably a gang initiation ... It's just a risk. It's like, 'If you'll do this, then eventually you'll kill someone at 1 o'clock in the afternoon when I tell you to.' It's conditioning them to do bad things, and they will do bad things to make that leader happy."
FORMER GANG MEMBER
Bart Matos, Goshen, knows all too well how that works.
"I was in a gang at 9 years old in Chicago, and at 13 is when it progressively got worse and I was trying to prove myself through violence and all that," he said. "It's no different than it is now, but I believe now is worse. There used to be codes and rules that you couldn't do certain things ... It's one thing, the fights, but now you have the gun stuff."
As a former gang member, Matos has been conditioned to recognize gangs, and feels called to help children who may be experiencing what he did as a kid.
"Growing up in Chicago, in the gang that I was in, we were taught to know everybody — their colors, their symbols, their tattoos, their literature, what they dressed whether it's left or right, and you can see some of it when you go out to the streets or when you're at Martin's or at Wal-Mart, you can see these guys walking around and you can see the tattoos on their faces or on their hands ... When you see how they're dressed, how they're talking, the tattoos they have, you start to recognize that there's a bigger problem here that people aren't thinking about. Everybody is in their homes thinking, 'Oh, it's nice, a nice little neighborhood,' but there's definitely some gangs here."
Matos works with local organizations to discuss the dangers to children of gang involvement, especially for those who attend the high school.
"You could see there were certain cliques of gangs," he said. "It's only obvious that they're separate people. You can see the separation between the students. You can see how they get into it in school, and then they finish it off after school."
Still, Matos doesn't feel like Goshen's population is un-savable. It's about getting the kids out of the gangs, before they make choices they can't take back.
"Jail is not really a good place for anybody," he said. "They just get worse in there, and then they just get tighter and closer to other gang members that don't care about changing their lives while they're in there. Usually, that's the option when they go in there. They can change their life and do something better or they're just going to become worse.
"In the gang life, it's never been a different story. It's always been the same thing. You've got the older guys that are the 'real' gang members. They grew up in it. Their families are in it and all that, and they recruit others. They manipulate others and lead them to believe this is a good thing, and now you've got youngsters walking around watching them, seeing social media or what they see on TV, and they just want to prove themselves. They want to be acknowledged that, 'Hey, I'm somebody,' and they're pretty much guinea pigs in the system of gangs. Most of them are younger because they don't have the mentality to think there's a consequence."
That's what Matos seeks to provide, an understanding of consequence.
"They are not unredeemable," Matos said. "I've always believed and been an example that God can redeem, people can redeem. You have to give purpose. You have to give them the eye-opener that this isn't the life you want. Most of those gang members don't really want that. They want what they call a 'normal life,' what you see on TV or what they see outside their neighborhoods."
"They're not bad kids," he continued. "They've made bad decisions because they're not being led right ... You see it all the time where a good kid makes a bad decision and now he's doing life for murder ... Coming from that background, seeing how deep gang involvement can become, how crazy it really is, how messed up for the community it really is, these kids need the attention to stop them now, people getting involved and helping them out and detouring them."
Turner explained that children from families not rooted in the tradition can be recruited just as easily, with the right motivation. Gang members can come from any family where parental involvement might be lacking for any reason.
"There might be good families that exist that maybe don't have the ability to be good role models because they're working two jobs or whatever it is, so their child's unsupervised," he said. "Their child's out doing things that maybe they don't recognize, but we also have families that believe strongly in gang culture and have passed that onto their children, and then we have families that don't have role models."
Gang leaders, Deary explained, can be very paternal or maternal, in the case of women-led gangs.
"They know exactly what kids need," he said. "They're really good, and they always keep their word ... Our job is to make sure they never join a gang, but if they do join the gang, we have to get them out of the gang, and that's going to take all of us."
Accidental injury is one of the biggest concerns for community leaders when it comes to gang violence.
"What worries me is moving into the heat of summer, end of school, kids out of school," he added. "It's hard enough just to be a good community or family member and if you don't deal with gangs early then good people get hurt. It's always the drive-by where a 10-year-old girl gets shot, but they weren't shooting at her. They were shooting at the 18-year-old. ... These are not trained military people who know how to use guns."
Despite the evident and acknowledged uptick in gang violence in the area, Assistant Chief Turner urged city residents to be aware that Goshen has been and still is a safe community.
"I absolutely feel that Goshen is still a safe community," he said. "It's just that the uptick in the use of weapons is something for this community that is shocking. It's something that we're not normally used to ... Hopefully, we'll never get used to it."
When asked exactly how big the gang population is in Goshen, he explained that it's likely not very big.
"To put a number on it would be very difficult to probably do, but to say it's a small percentage, I think, is very accurate," Turner said. "It's just that because of the nature of the violence, it seems like it's a much bigger issue than what it probably is."
Dani Messick is the education and entertainment reporter for The Goshen News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 574-538-2065.
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