Speaking to members of the Wichita Pachyderm Club on May 1, Wichita police chief Norman Williams spoke about the history and present of gangs in Wichita, the police department budget, and took questions from the audience.
The serious gang problem in Wichita dates from 1988, when gangs from California, Illinois, and Oklahoma moved into Wichita. Their initial purpose was to establish trade in drugs.
From 1988 to 2009, there have been 601 homicides in Wichita. Of these, 254, or 42%, were gang-related. This has had a tremendous impact on our community.
In Wichita, there are 1,679 active gang members. To this, add 718 associates, for a total of about 2,300 gang members and associates.
Gangs use terror and violence to control the drug trade.
A traffic stop in 2006 lead to a complex investigation called the “Cold Case” investigation. It involved many law enforcement agencies.
From this investigation, 65 individuals were indicted. 28 were charged under the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act. So far 20 have been convicted, 7 are waiting trial, and one was found not guilty. 71 federal search warrants were executed. 10 houses, 26 cars, and over $200,000 cash was seized.
The Wichita police force has also worked to find illegal aliens.
Of the 435 police officers in Wichita, about 71 are committed to gang suppression. Williams said this is a very high level of commitment, compared to other communities.
It takes a community effort, he said, to fight the gang problem. It takes three things — intervention, prevention, and suppression — to control gangs. Law enforcement has placed emphasis on the suppression side.
Parents and others need to stand together to intervene at early ages to shape the character of children. Otherwise, gangs establish a value system of violence. Children must be held accountable for their actions early on. We need more mentors, volunteers, after school activities, and we need to address the drop out rate.
The key is connecting all the resources in this community. Children may fall between the cracks otherwise, he said. No one person can do everything, Williams said, but each one of us can do something to bring about change in a young person.
With regard to its budget, Williams said the department is facing a challenge. The department has been asked to cut $500,000 from its $71.2 million budget. To make this cut, the department recommended to delay the start of the next recruit class ($200,000 savings), not filling two positions vacant due to military service ($80,000), and closing four patrol substations between 11:00 pm and 7:00 am. Police officers will continue to work at the stations, but clerical positions will be moved downtown ($147,000).
The department has also applied for federal stimulus money, applying for funds to hire ten police officers. The grant would provide funds for three years. Then the city would be required, by the terms of the grant, to fund the officers for one more year.
A question from the audience asked about the challenges to the police department of more activity in downtown Wichita. Chief Williams responded that the department has submitted a proposal to create a new bureau downtown. This proposal is pending.
Another question asked what does it mean to be a gang member? Williams answered that in 2006, the Kansas Legislature established the legal definition of a gang member and gang associates.
I asked this question: Since the gangs earn so much from illegal drug trade, if we could put aside the morality and public health issues of drugs, what would be the effect on crime of ending the war on drugs, which would mean legalizing drugs?
In reply, Williams said he’s not in favor of legalizing drugs. He said that yes, you may run the gang members out of business, but they will figure out a way to do something illicit to earn money. Gangs have become more complex in recent years, becoming involved in identity theft, prostitution, mortgage fraud, and tax violations. The illegal drug trade is not the gangs’ only business.
If I had a follow up question, I might ask Chief Williams if these other crimes (with the exception of prostitution) involve the type of street violence that terrorizes and harms residents of our city.
Later I asked about the mayor’s proposal to have — as one person termed it — “free range drinking” at festivals and in areas of Wichita like Old Town. Will this lead to more law enforcement issues?
Access to alcohol increases the challenges to public safety, the chief said. Can the department handle the challenge? The department has no choice but to deal with it, he said.