“A lot of our problems are the problems of Rocky Mount,” as well as other areas, he said at a forum sponsored by the Roanoke Rapids Police Department.
There are between 30 to 40 gangs in the county and more than 500 validated gang members, Dixon said.
While local gang task force experts didn’t have a specific number, Dixon said much of the crime in Halifax County is tied to gangs and drugs.
Dustin Wester, a corporal with the Rocky Mount Police Department and North Carolina Gang Association regional coordinator, the guest speaker for the evening at Kirkwood Adams, said probably 50 percent of the violent crime in Rocky Mount is linked to gang activity.
And the problem is growing. A middle school Crip set which formed in the Nash-Edgecombe region is growing “and is working its way to Halifax County. It will blow your mind how many of these things these kids will try to learn.”
Wester said children as young as 8 and 9 are joining gangs and carrying guns to school.
Part of the lure, he said, comes from self-esteem. “They’re getting love from the streets,” in place of love they might not get at home.
Gangs offer protection, he said. They offer children identity and some are intimidated into joining gangs, going through rites of passage such as beatings to become gang members.
Parents suspicious their children might be involved in gangs should look for bruising, Wester told the audience.
Other forms of initiation include doing licks — drive-bys, selling drugs and murders. “They do what they are told to do.”
These aren’t isolated crimes in Nash and Halifax, Wester said. “It’s happening all over. All 100 counties in North Carolina have a gang problem.”
Outside factors which may influence gang membership include movies, video games, athletes and clothing.
The popular Marilyn Monroe shirts in which the late movie star is depicted in tattoos and throwing gang signs is one popular article of clothing which may indicate membership or the desire to be a member, Wester said. Chicago Bulls clothing is popular with Bloods.
Gang experts are now seeing children who have been raised in the culture and those may be the most difficult to win over. “There’s nothing I can do to change kids’ minds. Their family put that mindset in his mind.”
Signals of gang affiliation or children wanting to be in a gang include a lack of empathy toward others, coldness, abnormally aggressive behavior, irresponsibility, manipulation and blaming others for their problems.
Then there is graffiti, hand signs and preferring specific colors of clothing. Other giveaways may be children having large sums of money or drugs. “This doesn’t mean they are full-blown gang members,” Wester said, “but they may have that mindset.”
Roanoke Rapids Police Chief Chuck Hasty said in response to an audience question, the police department is monitoring gang activity. “It’s not illegal to be a gang member,” he said. “We’re doing legitimate research.”
While the police department has community forums and there are recreation leagues and services such as the Boys and Girls Club, the problem is changing mindsets of the entrenched. “There are groups out there helping, but a person has to want the help. Unless a person wants to change there’s nothing we can do.”