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Community Reaches Out to Teens To Stem Rise in Violent Youth Crews

By Camille Bautista | September 29, 2015 7:45am
 Community organization Save Our Streets Bed-Stuy at a peace rally this September. The anti-gun violence group works with at-risk teens and young adults and helps mediate conflicts on neighborhood blocks.
Community organization Save Our Streets Bed-Stuy at a peace rally this September. The anti-gun violence group works with at-risk teens and young adults and helps mediate conflicts on neighborhood blocks.
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Save Our Streets/James Gentile

BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — There was a time when it was primarily Bloods versus Crips.

Today, police tally more than 70 identified "youth crews" in north Brooklyn, with creative names that range from Stack Money Goonz to Twan Family. 

Drawn by the familiarity of friends and shared interests, Brooklyn's young residents now have dozens of crews to choose from, forcing law enforcement and community leaders to take notice — and action.

"Young men and women organize themselves to try to take a stand on things they feel aren’t benefiting them in that area, and sometimes they become a little involved in disorder," said Juan Ramos, program director for Save Our Streets Bed-Stuy.

For one commanding officer, Deputy Inspector John Chell, keeping kids out of the crossfire of gang-related violence is a personal duty, involving dedicated face-time with teens in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Chell conducts one-on-ones with young people in the neighborhood’s western section, whether they’re at the 79th Precinct building or on the street.

"Arrest or post-arrest, or if they’re coming in to get their property, I like to bring them in my office," Chell said. "I try to talk to them from a father of four, Brooklyn guy kind of way, versus a police department guy.

"You just try to appeal to their sense of childhood. You’d be surprised that some of them, when you take them out of their group, you’re talking to a regular 15-year-old."

Half of last year’s shootings in the 79th Precinct involved 16- to 24-year-olds, Chell said, including some who were involved in youth crews.

The groups are concentrated in territorial pockets spanning specific blocks and often have members as young as 12, according to officials and community organizations.

Some of the smaller, younger crews are notably linked to violence.

In March, a 21-year-old was sentenced for the shooting death of an 18-year-old outside Marcy Houses. The incident was connected to an alleged member of Stack Money Goonz (SMG), a crew based out of Bed-Stuy’s Tompkins Houses. Two 13-year-olds and a 15-year-old were also injured.

In a separate case, a 15-year-old was found guilty in a fatal bus shooting between rival groups that killed a father of two. The teen, a purported member of SMG, was aiming for members of the Twan Family crew but missed his target. 

Gang violence is a crime that "plagues" the neighborhood, Chell said at a recent community council meeting. 

Still, he said the 79th Precinct is "making some headway with the crews."

Programs like the Bedford-Stuyvesant Neighborhood Opportunity Network at the Paul J. Cooper Center for Human Services provides resources for teens on probation, Chell said, and a new initiative is in the works in collaboration with local nonprofits and elected officials.

Area organizations like Save Our Streets Bed-Stuy are embedded in the community to make an effort in reducing gun violence.

That program takes a hands-on approach to create a support system for at-risk individuals, even helping to mediate conflicts on neighborhood blocks.

Crews are undoubtedly a presence in the area, Ramos said. But kids’ involvement doesn’t necessarily stem from a criminal mindset, he said, and oftentimes can be as innocent as representing a set of friends.

“I guarantee you, no one person has ever joined a gang for a bad reason,” Ramos said.

“They joined for good reasons they can somehow rationalize in their head because of a basic need they have, whether it’s a need of feeling protection in a community or that there aren’t enough resources, or a need for family.”

S.O.S. works with teens and young adults with a history of gang-affiliation or the potential to veer into criminal life. The organization provides employment opportunities and mentorship through outreach workers with similar backgrounds as the kids.

A 2013 report listed Bed-Stuy as a one of the city’s community districts with the highest rates of out-of-school and out-of-work youth. In such an area, the key to reaching out to crew members is opportunity and investment, according to Ramos.  

S.O.S. has been able to bring together individuals from different gangs in Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, he said, making teens aware that there are residents in the community concerned for their wellbeing.

"Gangs are only a reflection on the larger community they live in," Ramos said.

In order to address the issue of violent youth crews, stakeholders need to find an "antidote" to the larger issues affecting the neighborhood, he added.

Residents around the Marcy, Sumner, and Tompkins houses share a similar sentiment, stressing that the major factors at play are the deficiencies in the community, ranging from education and economic status to access.

There are 14 youth crews identified by the NYPD’s Juvenile Justice Division in the 79th Precinct and seven in Bed-Stuy’s 81st Precinct, but locals say teen shootings don’t always boil down to incidents of crew versus crew. 

From matches on the basketball courts to other sports, rivalries that started out as "healthy" have always existed between the neighboring projects, residents say.

"Sometimes crews are just a group of kids, that grew up in the same neighborhood, went to same school, probably even the same building, and are just close friends," said Chris Graham, director of the mentoring program at community group Brooklyn Hall of Game.

To prevent teens from delving into a life of crime, mentors attempt to reach out to kids while they’re young, he added.

"I’m just trying to help these kids that need some guidance, build relationships with them, ask them what they’re doing. There’s a lot of negativity out there," Graham said.

Hall of Game founder John Rasberry, who created the organization to provide support for local kids, added that positive outlets are crucial.

"The resources need to be allocated to those persons who have direct contact with the youth, and channeled to the right people," Rasberry said.

"The challenge for the precincts, local politicians, and as a community, is we have to collectively find a way to help some of the kids out. And then police may not see this criminal element is as rampant as it is."