By Justin Boron
Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske Monday night warned that an outright attack on gangs by law enforcement could escalate the problem and possibly transform loose criminal affiliations into the highly developed syndicates.
"We must have a balanced approach to this . If you focus on only law enforcement it's going to come back to bite you," he said. "Gangs love attention. You come at them and they're going to find a better way to come back at you."
The comments came during a community meeting at Forest Park High School, where Teske joined a chorus of community leaders and activists, advocating a broad multi-disciplined approach to allay youth violence and crime.
The Forest Park forum, which is followed by another awareness meeting at Riverdale High School tonight at 7 o'clock, reiterated the anxieties felt by parents and students in the wake of a recent spate of gun violence that left two students dead and one police say is still clinging to life support.
The meeting also is part of a relentless information and awareness campaign by community leaders hoping to keep the violence topic in the foreground of public concern and ensure it doesn't fall by the wayside as it has in the past.
Since two students Krystal Williams, 14, and Larry Bishop Jr., 18, were killed almost a month ago, the community has been hit with an onslaught of public meetings and news conferences highlighting the strategies toward curbing youth violence and gang activity.
People attending the meeting faced a gauntlet of activists and public officials distributing pamphleted information about programs geared toward solving the problem. One of them sought to publicize a gun buy back program.
A prominent strategy to emerge from the media hype has been a gang task force spearheaded by County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell that includes an education, faith-based, and citizen advisory group as well as a law enforcement arm.
Teske seemed to embrace the multi-pronged approach.
He said an alternative solution would be to work with the gangs.
Referencing a program in Chicago that partners with the city's probation services, Teske said the county should consider negotiating with gang leaders to allow young people who want out to leave without problems.
"Sometimes some compromises are worthwhile to save lives," he said.
But some of the parents also were reluctant to fully accept the negotiations idea.
Schwanda Walker, 32, of Lovejoy said she didn't think the county is at the stage with gangs as other urban centers like Chicago.
County Police Department Capt. Jeff Turner said although the court system may be able to implement alternative types of measures, from a law enforcement standpoint, compromising with criminals could send a risky message.
Nevertheless, an alternative approach has worked in other parts of the country, Teske said.
Michael Rohan, director of probation and court services in Cook County, Ill., said it has backed away from large-scale offensives against gangs.
"If you do that, it gets in the paper that you're doing an anti-gang movement, and you get the gang's name in the paper," he said.
"We recognize that gang-life is a reality for kids coming through the court," he said.
Cook County also has implemented seven centers that delinquents pending trial must report to from the hours of 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. The alternative to detention keeps offenders from committing more crime while they await trial and holds them accountable publicly, Rohan said.
Clayton County is scheduled to open a similar center in June, Teske said.