Gang expert talks about the problem and solutions after gang violence outbreak in Omaha

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February 6, 2015 - 6:45am

A recent deadly outbreak of gang-related violence in north Omaha raises bigger questions about causes and possible solutions. University of Nebraska at Omaha criminology and criminal justice professor Pete Simi is a gang expert who has worked with law enforcement and other agencies in the Omaha area, and published research on gang activity in Omaha. Mike Tobias of NET News talked one-on-one with Simi.

MIKE TOBIAS, NET NEWS: What generally leads to escalations in gang violence like we saw with the gang-related shootings at an Omaha party a couple weeks ago that left three people dead and five wounded?

Pete Simi (Photo by Ray Meints, NET)


"Gang Fight: Nebraska" is a 2011 NET News documentary that examined the landscape of gang activity in Nebraska, and efforts to fight back. It is centered on a boxing gym founded in gang-rich South Omaha by a convict-turned-minister who's trying to keep kids away from lifestyle he once embraced. One of the teenage boxers, a former gang member, gives viewers an inside look at gang life and its appeal to young people. For "Gang Fight," producer Mike Tobias also talked with law enforcement, researchers and community leaders about problems and solutions, and visited Columbus to examine the growth of gangs in rural areas.



PETE SIMI, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, SCHOOL OF CRIMINOLOGY AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE, UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA AT OMAHA: One of the things that we’ve seen looking at gang violence in Omaha, one of the main factors are interpersonal disputes, and these kind of rivalries and conflicts that get generated and aren’t resolved over time. So they end up developing pretty substantial shelf lives in some cases, and become ongoing conflicts, and at some point will kind of escalate into a gunfight, and unfortunately result in the loss of life in some cases.

TOBIAS: Are a lot of these disputes that sort of thing, versus really organized attacks by one gang against another?

SIMI: It’s kind of a combination. To some extent the conflicts may be primarily individual, kind of interpersonal, so-and-so ran into a person at a party and got into an argument. Maybe they’ve gotten into a fight with somebody’s cousin and there had been a conflict that generated from that type of situation. But sometimes the conflict may actually have a basis in terms of kind of rival gangs in different neighborhoods, where they end up in the same place at the same time, and that distinction between the gangs ends up escalating into a full-on conflict.

TOBIAS: Talk about trends in gang activity in Omaha. Are there things you’re noticing that are different than maybe a few years ago?

SIMI: I’d say as far as the numbers, these seem to be roughly comparable as far as the numbers of gang members and the different cliques. Obviously there’s a much larger number of both gang members and the number of gang cliques than there are of actual active members who are out involved in shootings and so forth. That’s really a small portion of folks who are documented as gang members, you have a small portion who are actually involved in gun violence. That’s been true over the years. You have some newer formations of gangs developing, but a lot of it’s still based in existing neighborhood designations and folks who grew up around different neighborhoods.

TOBIAS: Does technology play a difference in some of these spikes in activity?

SIMI: The way I think about the technology is that it can facilitate existing conflicts. It can also be a place where a new conflict emerges, in terms of on social media and so forth. But probably more likely it’s a facilitator in that you have conflicts that exist that get amplified on social media. They get communicated and expressed to a larger number of people. You also have the problem of these house parties where some of these conflicts emerge, end up on social media as far as the location, and so you get a wider swath of folks who know about the house party and potentially show up at the house party, than you would have in years past prior to social media.

TOBIAS: How do Omaha’s levels of gang activity and gang violence compare to other cities this size?

SIMI: With Omaha, I would say it’s fairly average. In Omaha, the gang situation is interesting in that you have your largest concentrations in the northeast quadrant and the southeast quadrant of the city, with African-American gangs being more prominent in northeast and Latino gangs being prominent in southeast. You historically have had much more involvement in gun violence among African-American gangs than Latino gangs. As far as the incidents of gang violence, Omaha’s a little deceptive in that you have such high concentrations of the gun violence in certain parts of the city and certain neighborhoods. So there’s probably a higher level of violence than we actually realize, although that’s true in other cities across the country as well, where they have very high concentrations in some parts of the city and very little violence in others.

TOBIAS: How does a city like Omaha decrease gang violence?

SIMI: It’s always got to be a multi-pronged effort. I think law enforcement across the country are now widely recognizing that you can’t arrest your way out of the problem. To the extent that we declared war on drugs, I think we’ve also done something similar in terms of declaring war on gangs. As a result, then you tend to treat it as kind of a military-type problem and as such that really informs your approach. I think that’s a big mistake. We have to do more in terms of prevention, intervention efforts. There’s got to be more investment in infrastructure across the board, whether it be businesses in communities that suffer from higher levels of economic deprivation and poverty, more to help families that are in dire need, more to help schools that are struggling to do what they can for students, pre-K programs, after school programs. And then more for social services that we’ve seen in recent years in Nebraska are really quite in upheaval as a result of major changes in terms of the Department of Health and Human Services. So we have programs that are out there that are struggling to meet the needs of at-risk youth and kids that are coming through the juvenile court system who often times are gang involved, and in some cases end up becoming involved in violence. To the extent that we’re not providing those agencies with greater resources so they can better help these kids, then we’re really created much greater costs, in terms of human and economic costs down the road, often in short order.

TOBIAS: Is there a model out there in another city of tactics or strategies that law enforcement is using that’s really found great success?

SIMI: Specific to law enforcement, the gold standard is still what’s been done in Boston, in terms of focused deterrence, where you really have a set of questions that law enforcement ask about the problem of gangs and gun violence, and gang-involved gun violence. Questions about the people involved, questions about the settings, the places where the violence tends to occur, the motivations for the violence, and a whole host of different questions that law enforcement should be gathering the information to be able to answer those kind of questions. Cincinnati has also developed kind of a gold standard model, also based on focused deterrence, that’s been in play for a number of years now.



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