DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — Gangs that started out as local "youth crews" but grew into citywide networks at Rikers Island are driving up Brooklyn shootings, NYPD leaders said at a meeting Wednesday.
More than half of north Brooklyn’s 220 shooting incidents this year were gang-related, NYPD Chief Rodney Harrison said at a public forum convened by Borough President Eric Adams.
The gangs are a hybrid of traditional gangs including the Bloods and Crips and small local crews of teenagers with members as young as 12, according to NYPD Gang Division head Deputy Chief Kevin Catalina, and they go by such names as "Money Goons," "Team Stack Paper" and "Rich Family."
In the early 2000s, the youth crews were largely not involved in the drug trade, instead primarily feuding and shooting each other over "silliness," Catalina said.
But the crews consolidated in Rikers, officials said, when incarcerated members joined gangs for protection.
"As a result of, again, jail culture, a lot of them have developed now, not only the crew affiliations that they had, that they developed in the 2000s, but now overall gang affiliations that they picked up while they were inside," Catalina said. "So now, those crews that we were having such a difficult time dealing with now have more backing to almost a traditional gang culture, and a lot of these crews are aligned with each other."
Department of Corrections Deputy Commissioner Errol Toulon said 16- to 21-year-olds are Rikers’ "most vulnerable population."
"It’s very difficult, some of them, because once they become incarcerated, they feel like they need some sort of protection or some sense of belonging," he said. "And that’s why they generally, if they weren’t affiliated outside in the streets, they would be affiliated inside once they become incarcerated."
Of the 9,830 inmates at Rikers, 1,956 are considered gang members, Toulon said. Slightly more than 1,000 Rikers inmates are under the age of 21, according to DOC.
"A big fight is to move the adolescents off Rikers," he added, "but no one wants them in their backyard either."
The crews often make money with credit card and check fraud schemes, Catalina said. But as prescription pain pill crackdowns have increased demand for heroin, he said, gangs have delved into the heroin trade.
Despite the proliferation of gangs in jails, law enforcement officials said their focus was locking up dangerous crew members for "as long as possible," in the words of the Brooklyn district attorney’s office chief of crime strategies, Ed Carroll.
"Or to keep them on probation, so that they are monitored, so that they’re not on the streets to do violence," Carroll added.
Rikers has changed the way it calculates the level of risk an inmate poses to account for gangs, spokesman Jack Ryan said in a statement. "DOC’s new housing classification tool takes a much deeper look at gang affiliation in order to house inmates safely and prevent violence."
One former gang member who now works with at-risk youth through the Department of Probation said many teens who have been swept up in the crew scene were just trying to survive.
Dedric “Beloved” Hammond, who got involved with a crew at age 11, said in violent pockets of the city, authorities and parents often can't offer the level of physical protection teens need.
"Six o’clock in the morning they actually got somebody waiting to actually shoot them because last night they got into a fight or they said some words that they didn’t like," he said.
He added that many teens see few options, other than joining a gang, to ensure their own safety on city streets.
"Some of these guys can’t make it from 129th to 128th and it’s only one block away,” Hammond told the crowd. "Some of them got forced into this life. It wasn’t a thing they chose."