Police: Gangs are everywhere, including suburbs
Gang members involved in large percentage of city's murders, police say
As far as Chantay M. Boxill is concerned, people who get tattoos on their faces should have them read, "I never want to work at a real job."
She knows of a second-grader who has one. His parents belong to a street gang.
Boxill is a Columbus police sergeant and in charge of the Columbus Division of Police's criminal intelligence unit, which investigates, among other things, the activities of gangs. She was the guest speaker last week at a monthly meeting of Block Watch coordinators from the Northland area -- and she pulled no punches.
"We have every race, color, whatever you want to call it, involved in gang activity in the city of Columbus," Boxill said. "The best thing about Columbus is it's so spread out, and the worst thing about Columbus is it's so spread out, it's hard for us to keep a handle on this.
"Gangs are everywhere -- everywhere."
And not just in the city, she added. Increasingly, her unit gets calls from Reynoldsburg, Pickerington and Grove City for advice on handling gang issues.
Nationally, violent crime and property-crime rates have declined dramatically over the past decade, according to the April 2012 fact sheet highlighting the 2010 National Youth Gang Survey by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
However, the continued presence of gangs and the associated violence and serious crime is an "enduring concern" in many areas, the fact sheet said, adding that, despite the overall decline in crime, gang violence continues at high levels in some cities.
Boxill, who joined the department on Christmas Eve 1989, began her presentation by showing video shot on a cellphone of people arranging a street fight between two teenage girls.
"This happens all the time," she said as the two girls, egged on by bystanders, began brawling, then two others started exchanging punches. "We're actually seeing more and more of this because everybody's videotaping everything.
"Needless to say, no one called the police."
The video was not supplied by a confidential informant; division personnel got it off YouTube.
"Type Columbus fights on YouTube," Boxill said. "You will see so many things."
The Columbus police gangs unit was created in 1996 in response to a then-new state law dealing with street gangs, Boxill said. Since then, about 1,900 gang members have been documented in around 88 "gang sets," although Boxill said she thinks the number is closer to 100 groups today.
The members range in age from preteens, or "little knuckleheads," as she calls them, to men in their mid-40s.
A report completed a few years ago when Walter Distelzweig was chief of police in Columbus estimated 0.00017 percent of the city's population belongs to gangs, yet since 2005, gang members have been involved in 20 percent to 25 percent of all homicides, Boxill said.
"That's a lot of involvement," she added, and it doesn't include felonious assaults, robberies or burglaries, other crimes often associated with street gangs.
The FBI has labeled street gangs "domestic terrorists," she said.
"These are actually some very smart kids, but they don't use their brains for anything good," Boxill added.
Four factors are used by the Columbus Division of Police to define a group of people as belonging to a gang, Boxill said:
* They have recurrent interactions on a regular basis.
* The organization has a structure and leadership, although this is not as true as it used to be for gangs.
* They have unity and signs of that unity, such as symbols or colors or specific clothing.
So far, Sgt. Boxill pointed out, that could describe the Boy Scouts, the U.S. Army or a police department. The fourth factor, criminal activity, is the crucial one, she said.
"It's the pattern of criminal activity that makes you an illegal gang member," Boxill said. "You don't pique our interest until you get involved in criminal gang activity."