Coalitions in Action: Coalition Connects Drug Use to Gang Violence

Embroiled in the crossfire of gang activity, the Murfreesboro, Tenn. community recognized the need for the development of a strategy to attack gang activity, therefore, squelching a vital drug trafficker and user.

The Community Anti-Drug Coalition of Rutherford County (CADCOR), in partnership with the Murfreesboro Police Department, Rutherford County Juvenile Court, The Guidance Center, Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), and Murfreesboro City Schools, developed a comprehensive approach to prevent gang involvement and investigate gang-related crimes. Through a three-year Targeted Violent Crime Reduction Grant from the Tennessee Office of Criminal Justice Programs, CADCOR, a CADCA member, reduced drug use with the power of prevention and collaboration.

According to the Department of Justice, there are at least 21,500 gangs and more than 731,000 active gang members in the United States. Gangs conduct criminal activity in all 50 states and U.S. territories. Although most gang activity is concentrated in major urban areas, gangs are spreading their business from the inner cities to smaller ones like Rutherford County, seeking more lucrative drug markets. The proliferation in nonurban areas increasingly is accompanied by violence. Youth gang members actively engage in drug use, drug trafficking, and violent crime.

The Tennessean newspaper recently chronicled its state’s gang activity. Originating in Los Angeles in the 1970’s, the Crips and the Bloods moved into the state of Tennessee in the 1980’s. Chicago’s Vice Lords arrived later. MS-13 appeared in Tennessee in the 1990’s after originating in California in the 1980’s.

The paper reports large, nationally-affiliated street gangs like these pose the greatest public threat because they smuggle, produce, transport, and distribute large quantities of illicit drugs throughout the country and are violent. However, local street gangs in rural, suburban, and urban areas pose a growing threat, often imitating the larger, more powerful national gangs in order to gain respect from rivals.

The community’s coordinated approach to addressing the problem included prevention tactics such as holding alternative social activities to reduce juvenile gang membership and activity and emphasizing the role that parents play in supervising youth.

In addition, the law enforcement sector increased its capacity. The Murfreesboro Police Department selected two officers to attend Gang Resistance Education And Training (GREAT) and assigned them to work in four city schools. Their goal was to develop positive relationships with students, especially at-risk youth susceptible to gang initiation and instruct a curriculum designed to instill good decision-making skills with an emphasis on an anti-gang agenda. The GREAT program has expanded to include all city schools with more than 600 students successfully completing the program.
In addition to the GREAT program, the grant-funded Positive Action classes in four schools that students from the target community attended. At the end of the three year project, three of the four schools participating saw a decrease in reported conduct problems.

Another part of the coalition’s data-driven strategy was to create an investigative and enforcement unit within the department’s criminal investigation division with a focus on gang-related criminal activity and prosecution.

The Murfreesboro Police Department’s dedicated gang unit increased enforcement activities throughout the three-year project, increasing arrests of gang affiliated people throughout the project. As a result of this project, gang unit officers increased their collaboration with other law enforcement agencies, local housing personnel, and other community stakeholders to address the gang and violent crime issues.

The coalition was able to achieve sustainability: The majority of strategies employed in this project will be continued without further grant funding.

“You have to already be ‘boots-on-the-ground’ to implement such a grant,” CADCOR program director Richard Watson said. “We are a grassroots organization, strong, we knew our community and this particular crime problem.”

The coalition leveraged its resources, proving to their stakeholders that fighting gangs fit right into coalition work and achieving population-level outcomes. Watson noted that gang membership can be multi-generational.

“You can provide all the education in the world to the youth, but if you don’t involve the parents, you won’t be able to make a difference,” he said.

More importantly, though, Watson said the project was able to prevent youth from ever even joining a gang, opting to join their youth coalition instead.

“That planted some seeds right there,” Watson said.

Jennifer Brinkman, Assistant Director Criminal Justice Programs, Tennessee Office of Criminal Justice Programs, in Nashville, said this of the project’s success:

“The overarching result of this project was increased collaboration and problem solving to address gang violence in the community. Partners that would not usually come together forged working relationships and demonstrated a willingness to think outside of their professional silos to address the issue.”

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