Columbia’s Gangs

The letters “NFC” are a fairly common tattoo around here. But the tattoo doesn’t mean what it once did.

In the 1980s, Columbia’s first gang came on the scene and introduced crack cocaine into the city, according to Detective Jonathan Logan, who has worked for the Columbia Police Department for more than 15 years. That gang called itself “Niggas from Columbia,” or NFC for short. Some of the original NFC members showed their allegiance by getting inked with the gang’s initials, but today the letters don’t necessarily mark the wearer as a gang member. Some younger people, including children of the original gang members, have chosen to adopt NFC tattoos for other reasons.

Eventually NFC was eclipsed by the next generation of gang members, a group called the Gambinos, which developed in the 1990s and later changed its name to the Cut Throats. Members were active in Columbia until about 2009, when a joint investigation by the FBI and the CPD led to the convictions of 18 people affiliated with the gang. With many of the gang members sentenced to prison, the Cut Throats was all but finished.

In its absence, three other gangs formed: Squad Up, Young Money and Hollister. The latter two seem to have died down, but Squad Up persists. It’s difficult to pin down a number, but Logan estimates Columbia is now home to three or four gangs, which many police departments define as three or more people who band together for the purpose of committing criminal acts. Here’s what Columbians need to know about these groups and their activities.

1. Columbia’s gangs aren’t like the ones you see in the movies.
You’ve probably heard stories about big-city gangs such as Bloods and Crips: They have clear internal hierarchies. They claim distinct territories and mark them with graffiti some shop owners are too terrified to remove. They require would-be members to commit murder or other crimes as initiation rites, and once accepted, members find it difficult or even impossible to get out of the gangs alive.

Columbia’s gangs are different, Logan says; they’re loosely organized, and their activity is cyclical. Groups emerge, cause trouble, then often disperse for any number of reasons such as members’ incarceration or an easing of tensions between groups. Many of these criminal alliances are short-lived, and members are transient. If someone has a disagreement with a fellow gang member, that person might simply decide to leave and join another gang.

Getting out isn’t difficult, Sam Brady says. Brady coordinates the Columbia Parks & Recreation baseball program at Douglass Park and has also coached basketball for several years. Many of the kids confide in him, and some tell him they’re involved with gangs.

“I think kids can walk away from a gang here in Columbia just as easily as they walked in,” Brady says. “But are they going to get an opportunity to get out before something stupid happens?”

Geographically speaking, Columbia is too small for gangs to claim their own territories, according to Logan. “You’ll have gang members from various gangs living in the same neighborhoods, going to the same schools — some of our gang problems start at school — same parties, same stores, same bars, the same sporting events and so on,” he says. That closeness might actually contribute to the number of gang-related shootings here, as members of different gangs can’t avoid running into one another.

2. That said, their behavior still spells danger for the whole community, not just certain neighborhoods.
Whether Columbia’s gangsters are as tough as their big-city counterparts is beside the point — their behavior endangers others, Logan says. “I don’t care if they’re wannabes; I don’t care if they’re hardened gang members — they’re shooting each other. There isn’t an area of town where there could be a shooting and it doesn’t put the rest of the community in danger.”

Logan doesn’t believe the number of shootings has gone up in the past several years, but the police department has noticed another trend: gunfire in public places while lots of other people are around, sometimes in the middle of the day. The detective rattles off the sites of some recent shootings: Chuck E. Cheese’s, Boone Tavern, Southside Pizza, the intersection of Garth and Texas. “I think the community has maybe paid more attention because these shootings weren’t just in high-crime neighborhoods,” he says. “It has spread out to areas where they like to eat, at a gas station, at a business where their family goes.”

Still, neighborhoods in north and central Columbia tend to have more issues with gang activity, and the people who live there deserve better, Logan says. “In the worst neighborhood in Columbia, there are really, really good people who live there. It isn’t fair for them to live in an environment where they don’t feel safe.”

3. In addition to shootings, local gangs participate in car hopping, burglaries and drug dealing — sometimes for cash, sometimes for fun.
Many of these gangs will cruise through neighborhoods, often late at night, and check if people’s car doors are unlocked so they can steal any valuables inside. The police department says a number of people have had guns stolen out of their unlocked cars this way.

“I’m a big proponent of gun ownership, but it is very irresponsible to leave a gun in an unlocked vehicle in front of your home,” Logan says. To complicate matters, many gun owners don’t record their serial numbers, so it’s hard for authorities to track the stolen guns.

Gang members also get together to burglarize homes at night or during the day when most people are at work. The purpose of this is threefold: to gain weapons, to make money off stolen goods and to get a thrill, Logan says.

Brady believes these crimes are linked to a lack of education and job opportunities among Columbia’s minorities and impoverished. “If you don’t give a 16- or 17-year-old an opportunity to be successful — to buy the Michael Jordan shoes, the Kobe Bryant jerseys — they’re going to go out and take it,” he says. “They’re going to find a way to get that stuff, and it’s easier in a group than as an individual.”

Drugs are another important source of income for gang members. Marijuana and party drugs such as Ecstasy and Molly (MDMA) have been staples for years, but Logan says the police department is concerned about an uptick in heroin use. Overdoses have increased in Columbia and Jeff City in the past couple of years, and he suspects some of the heroin sales stem from gangs.

4. As Columbia grows, so does its gang problem.
As the city grows to encompass more people, it gains law-abiding citizens and criminals alike. “I think with any community that’s growing at the rate Columbia is, with all the good people you have move here, you have influences that maybe aren’t so good,” Logan says.

Signs of gang activity in Columbia’s junior high schools are one indication of the city’s growing gang problem. A few years ago, school administrators began reporting they were seeing and hearing gang names at school.

“Typically you know that you’re going to have a gang problem when you’re seeing it start to develop in your junior highs,” Logan says. “I think the gang issues are going to be something the police department and the community are going to have to work together to fight.”

5. Most of the graffiti around here is just vandalism, not gang messages.
If you see some “street art” around town, chances are good the scrawlings are just vandalism, not coded gang messages. As in most cities, homes and businesses in Columbia occasionally become canvases for vandals, but gangs rarely choose to communicate through spray paint — likely because Columbia is too small for local groups to stake territories, so there’s no need to mark them.

“Graffiti tied to gangs has, in my opinion, never been an issue and still isn’t, from what I have seen,” Logan says.

6. Gang involvement is hard to track in Columbia.
The fluid nature of Columbia’s gangs makes them difficult to track because affiliation changes often, and ever since the FBI and the CPD busted many of the Cut Throats, gang members have been more reluctant than ever to admit their gang affiliations, Logan says. Another challenge authorities face is Columbians’ reluctance to give the CPD information about gangs.

“Street code is ‘you don’t snitch,’ ” Brady says. “But that’s not reality. Somebody will call the police. Somebody will tell somebody who’ll tell somebody who’ll tell somebody.”

And tracking gang-related crime for statistical purposes would be nearly impossible, Logan says. If a drug deal goes bad between two people who belong to different gangs, is it gang-related because they’re both in gangs? Or is it not gang-related because the crime wasn’t about one gang targeting another? The CPD does try to use any knowledge of gang affiliation to get more information during investigations, but separating all crimes into categories of gang-related or not gang-related would be extremely difficult, Logan says.

7. Some people deny there are gangs in Columbia, while others think gangs run the city. The truth lies somewhere in-between.
In years past, the CPD and some Columbia residents have been reluctant to acknowledge the presence of gangs here. Former police Chief Randy Boehm argued local criminal groups weren’t gangs, pointing to their loose organization. His interim successor, Tom Dresner, touched on the department’s reticence to classify these groups as gangs in a 2009 press conference about the Cut Throats’ arrests. According to the Columbia Daily Tribune, Dresner stood alongside the FBI agents who helped catch the gang members as he said, “The days of not really saying there are gangs in Columbia are over.”

While some have denied the existence of gangs in Columbia, others have taken the opposite stance. “There are people in our community who think gangs run the city,” Logan says. “Well, that’s not the case, either.” This camp tends to blame Columbia’s burglaries and shootings on gangs, failing to realize some of these crimes are committed by people who have no ties to gangs whatsoever.

8. Gangs provide a sense of belonging to youths whose parents are absent or uninvolved.
Logan stresses that he’s not a gang expert, but he’s observed that kids in gangs tend to have some things in common: young parents, absent fathers, insufficient parental guidance, little emphasis at home on education and hard work. “When they’re not being guided at home, they guide themselves,” he says. “They find kids with similar upbringings and similar characteristics, and they’ll kind of band together.”

Many of Brady’s observations echo Logan’s. “It’s just neighborhood kids who feel like they want to belong to something,” he says. “They want to feel tough, they want to feel wanted, so they go out, they shoot a gun, they make a bad choice.”

Both Brady and Logan believe music has an impact on young people; music that glorifies crime is deeply influential for youths that have no other role models. “Those Jay-Z lyrics are just not reality,” Brady says. “Those Tupac lyrics are not reality for our youth.”

Let’s hope not. The “thug life” Tupac Shakur lived, rapped about, and even had tattooed across his torso didn’t repay him very well. After getting into a fight with a man widely believed to be a Crips member, Shakur was shot multiple times in a drive-by attack. Doctors at a Las Vegas hospital couldn’t save him from internal bleeding, and he died an unglamorous death at only 25 years old.

The Brady Plan
Sam Brady is brimming with ideas for helping Columbia’s youth.

He envisions a youth club where young people can come together for recreation and learning. “I’ve met so many teenagers at Douglass Park who can’t read,” he says. “That’s why we need a complex where kids don’t have to be embarrassed and they can sit down and learn those things.”

A handful of people could teach classes, and kids would have access to computers for educational purposes, Brady says. They could make music, write poetry and create arts and crafts. Sure, some kids will act too cool for such a place, but they’ll still check it out, he says. And he thinks they’d be hooked.

“For the majority of teenagers now, the dream is not being a doctor or a lawyer or a fire chief — they want to be rappers, they want to be musicians,” he says. “We’d give those guys an opportunity to go to a place where they can work on their music in a positive way.” On the weekends, Brady envisions kids performing in talent shows on stages such as the Missouri Theatre. He imagines a $3 admission charge and a packed house filled with friends, parents and grandparents.

Brady also thinks Columbia should organize a gun buy-back program, which has been successful in cities such as Phoenix and Los Angeles. He says a no-questions-asked attitude and a $50 to $100 incentive per weapon would get a lot of guns off the streets. “You’d be surprised how many kids would turn in their gun for the money,” he says.

Once fewer people are packing heat, Brady would like to see some sort of truce between local gangs: a meeting under the pavilion at Douglass Park to talk out their issues or even a baseball game against one another. “I feel like we can all agree to disagree, but we first have to get these guns off the street because you can’t have a good conversation armed,” he says. “People don’t come to the negotiating table with weapons.”

Most importantly, Brady says, minority and low-income youths need jobs.

“Columbia is booming with white females and white males. It’s not booming with minorities,” he says. He gestures to the people seated around him at Golden Corral. “You see a lot of minorities in here eating now, but how many minorities do you see working?”

The answer: one or two.

“That’s the issue in Columbia,” he says.

Brady talks about organizing campouts for kids and holding “scared straight” assemblies. He has no shortage of ideas, but he says he needs Columbia residents to pitch in.

“We have opportunities to solve this so-called gang problem in Columbia,” he says. “We all do. Because it’ll take all of us.”