On Your Side Investigation: The City of Hattiesburg's gang problem

On Your Side Investigation: The City of Hattiesburg's gang problem
A map outlines the gangs in Hattiesburg that police are tracking. Source: HPD
The map lists some of the gangs tied to the Hub City. Source: HPD
The map lists some of the gangs tied to the Hub City. Source: HPD

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - In the past seven months, there have been 29 shootings in the Hub City.

Hattiesburg Police Department Capt. Branden McLemore said all 29 are gang related.

"We have gangs, and we have a lot of violence…and a lot of our violent crimes are because of gangs," said McLemore.

The state defines a "gang" as:

"Criminal Street Gang, means any on-going organization, association or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, having one of its primary activities the commission of one or more of the criminal acts, having a common name or common identifying sign or symbol, and whose members individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in a pattern on criminal gang activity."

Multiple gangs criss-cross the Hub City, some more violent than others.

"Known gangs in the city of Hattiesburg, the ones we actually deal with very often would be a total of five," said McLemore. "There's a lot more than that as far as active gangs, but the five I can tell you that we deal with the most often are 74 Hoover, 5 deuce, Rollin 60, Vice Lords and Gangster Disciples."

Hub City gangs operate under similar codes and laws as gangs in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, only with different leaderships, according to the Mississippi Association of Gang Investigators.

State and federal authorities confirm McLemore's assessment.

Christopher Freeze, special agent in charge of the FBI for Mississippi, said Hattiesburg does have a gang problem.

"Now, some people argue that those gangs don't always look the same way they do in a big city like Chicago or L.A. or New York…and that might be true, but at the end of the day you have groups of people banding together to conspire and commit crimes, and that is a gang," said Freeze.

With the dozens of shootings over the past few months, local, state and federal authorities are hitting the streets to combat the growing issue.

In 2016, Hattiesburg recorded 44 aggravated assault crimes. As of July 19, 2017, the Hub City has already recorded 29 shootings, which are all gang related according to McLemore.

With those numbers increasing, the Hattiesburg Police Department is working to make the streets safer.

"Swiftly getting our officers out there, and getting these teams put together, these joint operations with federal agencies and other state agencies, we get those out there and as soon as we get them out there we try to take them off the street as soon as possible," said McLemore.

"We have a Safe Streets Task Force, comprised of some of our other federal agencies, Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, a lot of the local sheriffs and chiefs have offered task force officers from their agencies…and we really look at the crime problem through that lens of how do we use our task force to combat that problem," said Freeze.

In the past week, authorities have arrested roughly 20 known gang members and seized numerous weapons in various operations.

"They participate, they choose that lifestyle, they choose who they want to hang with and we are going to basically put a stop to it and not going to allow it for the general public," said McLemore.

McLemore said they see a repeating pattern constantly when they work to combat the gang issue.

"We have a repeated pattern, basically if you take one group of gang members of the street, then you always have the younger ones that follow and try to take the place of the ones we take off the street," he said. "Every time that there is some type of criminal malice that they basically do, it be a shooting, a drive-by shooting…it be an aggravated assault, it be just a simple fight as soon as we know what it leads to…if you don't stop it when it starts with a misdemeanor crime, if you don't stop it then, it's going to lead into ultimately what we do not want, is the taking of another life."

The definition of gang according to the United States Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement reads:

A- An association of three or more individuals.

B- Whose members collectively identify themselves by adopting a group identity, which they use to create an atmosphere of fear or intimidation, frequently by employing one or more of the following: a common name, slogan, identifying sign, symbol, tattoo or other physical marking, style or color of clothing, hairstyle, hand sign or graffiti.

C- Whose purpose in part is to engage in criminal activity and which uses violence or intimidation to further its criminal objectives.

D- Whose members engage in criminal activity or acts of juvenile delinquency that if committed by an adult would be crimes with the intent to enhance or preserve the association's power, reputation or economic resources.

E- The association may also possess some of the following characteristics:

1. The member may employ rules for joining and operating with the association.

2. The members may meet on a recurring basis.

3. The association may provide physical protection of its members from others.

4. The association may seek to exercise control over a particular geographic location or region, or it may simply defend its perceived interests against rivals.

5. The association may have an identifiable structure.

Forrest-Perry County District Attorney, Patricia Burchell, whose office is tasked with prosecuting the local cases, said the issue exists in the Hub City.

"Yes, I do believe that we do have a gang problem here in Hattiesburg," said Burchell. "The thing that is the most troubling to me, that the crimes that are committed by the gang members are violent crimes, they usually involve guns, they're our aggravated assaults, our drive-by shootings and they are violent crimes."

In the past two years, 80 known gang members have been charged under a state law.

"Mississippi has provided us with a statute, it's the Criminal Street Gang Activity Statute," said Burchell. "We can use that also for additional enhancement when we can prove that the underlying crime was gang related."

With that statute, local agencies can arrest multiple people in connection to gang crimes.

"Just use for an example…if we have an incident that happened at a gas station, and there's a fight, this gang versus this gang and we prove that every one of those people there that (were) involved in that altercation was affiliated with a gang, then we charge everyone there that's involved in it," said McLemore. "We don't stop at just the person, the person that was there actually doing the (incident), we start with that person and go all the way back to everyone involved, because everybody was fighting."

With the crimes being gang-on-gang related, it's rare innocent bystanders are injured, but not unheard of.

"We do have some instances where there have been bystanders involved, but those have been few and far between over the years," said Burchell.

Said McLemore: "No matter if it's a gang member or a bystander or not, we don't want another person's life to be put in jeopardy."

According to the Mississippi Association of Gang Investigators, the majority of the gang violence and crimes are related to money, drugs, or disputes over women.

"It's sad to say but, it starts with some type of drama with some type of rival gang members and a girlfriend…that basically now has broken up with this person and now is with this other gang member," said McLemore. "It basically is enough tension that it starts off with a little simple assault altercation where they beat the guy that is basically dating the new person and then what ends up happening because that person got jumped is they will go get with their gang members and perform a drive-by."

Hattiesburg police have changed patrol patterns, shifted additional units to other locations around the city working to combat the problem as well as speed up response times.

"We try to stop it before it happens, but when we do find out that that is a problem, we work day and night, we put everything that we can, we use all of our resources, we put all of that together," said McLemore.

Law enforcement also is trying to change the minds of people who are affiliated with gangs.

"The only way you put a stop to that, is basically by getting involved in the community, stopping that violence at the point that you can actually change that person's mind on what they need to do or move forward into that other lifestyle," said McLemore.

Agencies like the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics and FBI are working in various ways to not only add on charges, but to put a dent in the gang violence.

"We are looking at the traditional crimes that you might think gangs are involved in the trafficking of drugs, trafficking of weapons, other criminal activity, and just looking at who do we need to go after that is going to allow us to take out that enterprise, take out that gang as a whole," said Freeze.

If the actions don't stop, Freeze said there's one place specific you're headed.

"If you're committing a crime, we will find you, you will be prosecuted, and you will spend time in federal prison," said Freeze.

McLemore echoed those remarks on the local level as well.

"We have a zero tolerance, a zero tolerance, it doesn't matter what it is, if you hide out a gang member, if you know your family member, loved one, is involved in a gang you need to tell them to stop…because if not they're either going to end up 6 foot under, or behind bars," said McLemore.