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VOL. 41 | NO. 38 | Friday, September 22, 2017

Gangs, opioids: How to tackle two deadly scourges

By Linda Bryant

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That petty theft of a lawnmower across the street might very well have been done by a teen flirting with gang membership.

You’re also a target for theft if you have controlled substances in your medicine cabinet. And you might be tempting your children to experiment with highly addictive substances.

All major U.S. cities are grappling with issues related to gangs and the raging opioid epidemic. Some may feel removed or protected from these gritty problems in Nashville, but talk to Metro officers who are working on the front lines – or undercover – and they’ll tell you no neighborhood here is immune.

Police in Nashville stress, over and over, the importance of calling in complaints large and small. Sometimes residents become frustrated if their complaints aren’t addressed immediately, but the folks at MNPD say it doesn’t mean they won’t take complaints seriously or keep track of them if they can’t get to a complaint immediately.

In fact, they prefer responding to call-ins as quickly as possible, even ones reporting suspicious behavior or petty crimes, because it’s not unusual for small crimes and abnormal looking activities to be directly related to the larger ones — major drug or crime rings and gangs.

The Ledger spoke with two specialized MNPD lieutenants to find out their thoughts on two serious crime issues in Nashville – gangs and the opioid/heroin epidemic – and how they are affecting citizens at the neighborhood level.

Lt. Steve Duncan, MNPD gang unit investigation

What are signs of gang activity? If you are concerned about gang activity in your neighborhood when should you call the police?

“If you look at the way kids talk, some of the groups will only use slang based on what affiliation they are. They dress similarly because everyone wants to fit it. Being a gang member in and of itself is not illegal. You don’t want to accuse people (of being in a gang) based on what they are wearing or what they look like.

“But you want to be aware of what’s going on. If you see five or six kids together all wearing the same color, bandanas hanging out of their pockets and all have the same tattoos – that should send up red flags.

"(We can tell) a lot from looking at kids’ textbooks and folders. Kids’ doodle symbols, (gang related) symbols on their notebooks. Parents and teachers can look them up (on the internet.)

What are some of the most pressing issues related to gangs right now? What trends do you see?

“I don’t know what to attribute it to, but we are starting to see young people create more violent crimes. It’s difficult because a lot of them are kids, and you would hope a lot of them would outgrow these things. I hate to think of any of them making mistakes at 16 or 17-years-old that would have them incarcerated long term.

“Nashville is a big city that’s constantly growing, which means we’re seeing gang members come here. It’s just like anybody else; they come here with families looking for jobs. Some are local, some are immigrant. Many of them are looking for some kind of belonging.

"(Gangs become an option) through lack of a family unit or being some kind of outcast. Gangs give them that sense of belonging and status. In a regular world respect is a mutual understanding. In the gang world, fear means respect. If you fear me, you respect me.

“Gangs in Nashville seem to ebb and flow. They go in cycles where some are very active and some lay low. Some of the more prominent and violent members will get locked up, and things will die down somewhat. We’ve seen this happen routinely over the years since the unit was created.

“Recently, we’ve seen the formation of hybrid gangs. It makes us a little different from other places in the country. You won’t find Bloods and Crips associating in Chicago. Here there’s some kind of odd twist. They’ll say, “I’m a Blood, you’re a Gangster Disciple, but we grew up together so we’re going to call ourselves this (new name). They’ll form another gang.

“It makes it somewhat hard to track. It’s common to see here. We’ve even seen gang members who come from other cities who are surprised by it.”

What do residents need to know?

Always reporting suspicious activity to the police is paramount. If it’s not a life-threatening emergency, you can send emails to the community coordinator at your precinct.

“If you’re seeing (suspicious) things where kids are hanging out or a lot of spray painting, you want to communicate it. It takes the police and public works to clean up something like that.”

Lt. Carlos Lara, MNPD Specialized Investigation Division

How do you gauge the extent of the opioid problem in Nashville?

“It’s definitely an epidemic in the community not just here but around the country. People are constantly overdosing on heroin. It’s coming to the forefront now because of so many overdoses. We are trying to figure out where these opiates, especially heroin, are coming from.”

“Several years ago, there were issues with pain clinics prescribing a lot of medications in ways that weren’t legal. Now those people are not able to get those pills, and they are going to heroin because it’s more accessible to them and a better high. We really can’t gauge how much is coming in because there’s just so much.

“For everything we get, I’m sure there’s (large drug and narcotic shipments) we miss. Anytime we have an overdose we thoroughly investigate it and try to find out where the source is. We are constantly looking for those who are selling or transporting these drugs to Nashville.”

Do you feel like we are making progress with this opioid/heroin crisis?

“These addictions are very, very powerful. They are not going to go away overnight. We need to go back to our lawmakers and try to figure out ways from their end to keep people from over prescribing. It’s a joint effort and involves a lot of different organizations.

“In law enforcement, we deal with the problem first-hand, but we really need to also talk about legislation, about getting doctors to work with us since a lot of these (prescribed) opiates are where the addiction starts. When they are prescribed for surgery, then some people become addicted. You have people who don’t finish their prescriptions, and they leave them in their medicine cabinet and then a child or teenager will come in and start taking them. There are a lot of moving parts.”

“Heroin is a cheaper drug and easier narcotic to get than prescription drugs so people are going to the next alternative and that’s heroin or Fentanyl. We just found out about a case and found what we thought was heroin was actually a large quantity of Fentanyl, well over 100,000 doses.”

What can an average resident do to combat this problem?

“If you have medications that are controlled substances at home, get rid of them. We have drop boxes for medications at our precincts. If you don’t need them, all you’re doing is giving opportunities to others to take them and use them.

“This is how a lot of substance abuse begins. Always talk to your doctor. Maybe (there is a safe alternative medication) and you don’t need that Percocet or oxycodone.

"If you see something that doesn’t look right, call it in. If you don’t feel comfortable, use Crime Stoppers. If you see something, you can call your precinct level detective. You can call us (at the Specialized Investigation Unit). Don’t stay quiet about drugs or dealing drugs in your neighborhood.”

What do you feel is of critical importance in your department?

We have distributed Narcan (also known generically as naloxone) for our officers. Now when we go to a scene and think we have someone overdosing, we have something that can possibly save a life. Our department is looking to curb this epidemic here and having Narcan means we now have a huge resource to help. Every officer now has it.

“We take every overdose very seriously. We are going to do all we can to and use our resourcing and our budgeting to find out who’s bringing this into our city, who is selling it. We are going to hold them accountable. This is destroying families and lives.”

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