|The Gangs of Sarasota|
A Day In the Life of SPD Detective Kim Laster, Gang Investigator
By Cliff Roles
If you want to become a member of a gang, you have to undergo an initiation ceremony. Different gangs have different initiations: drive-by shootings, robberies, home invasions, even murder. But the most common one is a “jump-in”, which involves you showing your loyalty to the gang by voluntarily letting the gang members beat the crap out of you. You don’t fight back; you cover your head, roll up into a ball and hope you survive. Serious injury to include death has occurred as a result of jump in’s on a national level.
A “sex-in” used to be a very common initiation ceremony for females who wanted to join a gang; it was virtually gang-rape by 4, 5, or 6 guys. This can be considered weak, so now the girls also get beaten up by both the men and the women.
Imagine having to know these facts – and thousands more like it – about gang activity in your town. Then you’ll appreciate what Kim Laster does. I’m spending the day with her – Detective Kim Laster, Sarasota Police Department’s Gang Investigator. Kim has held this position since 2005, after she joined the SPD in 1999 as a road patrol officer. She was born and bred here in Florida, and is married to Sergeant Chris Laster of the Sarasota Sheriff’s Office, who is responsible for the Mounted Unit.
Names, numbers, colors. Tattoos and graffiti. Heritage, race, families. Hand signals, dances, right or left identifiers. Traditional gangs, hybrid gangs. Philosophies, rules, acronyms. National gangs, local gangs: Folk Nation, People Nation, Bloods, Crips, Outlaws, 24th Street Boyz, Second Line.
Two gangs that are known on a national scale are SUR 13 and NORTE 14. I looked them up in Wikipedia, and this what I learned: Sureños (Spanish for “Southerners”) are a group of Mexican American street gangs with origins in Southern California. The gang’s alleged roots came from a jail discussion between the Mexican Mafia (La EME) and Nuestra Familia (NF). Those who sided with La EME aligned themselves in the south (sureño=southerner) while those that sided with the NF aligned themselves in Northern California (norteños=northeners). Sureños represent themselves with symbols and phrases such as “Sur 13”, “Los Sureños” and “Sureño Trece.” These indentifications are accompanied by the color navy blue & gray, numeric code of number 13 and the Roman numeral of XIII.
Nuestra Familia were prison enemies of the Southern Mexicans (Chicanos) who comprised La Eme, better known as the Mexican Mafia. While the Mexican Mafia had initially been created to protect Mexicans in prison, there was a perceived level of abuse by members of La Eme towards the imprisoned Mexicans (Chicanos) from rural farming areas of Northern California. The spark that led to the ongoing war between Nuestra Familia and members of the Mexican Mafia involved a situation in which a member of La Eme allegedly stole a pair of shoes from a Northerner. This event put into motion the longest-running gang war in the state of California.
Members of Nuestra Familia are known to wear red bandanas to identify themselves. Other symbols include use of the number 14, as the letter “N” is the 14th letter of the English alphabet.
After reading this, I now hear you saying: but we don’t have any gangs in Sarasota, do we?
“That’s probably the most common response,” says Kim, as we walk through the courtyard at Oak Park School. “We actually first started documenting gangs here in 1997, but they existed much earlier than that, even as far back as the Eighties.”
It’s Professionals Day, so the kids are off. Kim’s giving a presentation on Gang Awareness and Identification to around 25 of the school’s teachers. The school, which is located east of I-75 on Proctor Road, serves students with a broad range of special needs, aged 3 to 22, including the “Profoundly Mentally Handicapped”, the “Trainably and Educably Mentally Handicapped” and the “Behaviorally and Emotionally Disabled.” There’s a lot of gang activity here at Oak Park, so Kim has been asked to bring the teachers up to speed on what to look for. She sets up the white screen in front of the blackboard, pauses her laptop at the first of the PowerPoint slides, sits down and waits for the room to fill.
So are we talking Mafia families, I ask? Severed horses’ heads in people’s beds?
“No, gangs are very unique to wherever they’re from,” she explains. “Los Angeles, Chicago, New York. And to Sarasota. Just because we have certain gangs here who follow certain sets of rules, doesn’t mean you can go across the state to West Palm and see exactly the same thing. Most of the time, when you hear the word “gang”, you think of the traditional gangs. But we have some non-traditional ones here too.”
Let me bore you for a minute with a little “legalese” from Chapter 874 of the Florida State Statute, “Criminal Gang Enforcement and Prevention.” Although “the Legislature recognizes the constitutional right of every citizen to harbor and express beliefs on any lawful subject whatsoever, to lawfully associate with others who share similar beliefs, to petition lawfully constituted authority for a redress of perceived grievances, and to participate in the electoral process” (§1), it finds, however, that “the state is facing a mounting crisis caused by criminal gangs whose members threaten and terrorize peaceful citizens and commit a multitude of crimes. These criminal gang activities, both individually and collectively, present a clear and present danger. Street gangs, terrorist organizations, and hate groups have evolved into increasingly sophisticated and complex organized crime groups in their criminal tactics, schemes, and brutality” (874.02 §2).
But what’s a “criminal gang?”
Well, a criminal gang is described as “a formal or informal ongoing organization, association or group that has as one of its primary activities the commission of criminal or delinquent acts, and that consists of three or more persons who have a common name or common identifying signs, colors, or symbols, including, but not limited to, terrorist organizations and hate groups.” (874.03 §1)
The Oak Park teachers listen intently to Kim’s presentation, but chime in regularly with their own experiences. Behavior specialist Susan Rodgers tells of 8-year olds at the school who are already in gangs: “It goes down from generation to generation; their parents were gang members, so for them it’s a normal way of life.”
Kim nods: “Ask them why they’re in a gang – they’ll tell you it’s for the number and for the color. For example, the main color of SUR 13 is blue, while NORTE 14 is red.” She motions to the table in front of her, which is covered in articles of clothing, belts and belt buckles of all different colors and sizes.
“Every single one of these things has an acronym or meaning that could be associated with a specific gang. A cap with an embossed ‘P’: ‘Pirates’? No, People Nation. A blue baseball cap with ‘NC’: ‘North Carolina’? No, Northside Crips. A shirt with a pitchfork logo: University of Indiana? No, Folk Nation. A scarf with the word ‘Raiders’? No, it’s an acronym for ‘Ruthless Ass Insane Disciples Eliminating Red Slop’. This refers to the disrespectful nicknames that two of the big gangs have for each other: Crips are ‘scuz’, and ‘Bloods’ are ‘slop’. You think ‘BK’ stands for Burger King? No way – try ‘Blood Killer’.
“This is what they adopt,” Kim continues, “And as innocent as they appear, they’re going to have some kind of acronym that associates to their gang, color or number.”
The “gang look” is meant to intimidate those who are not in a gang. Children and teenagers who dress in clothing that resembles gang attire may attract the attention of gangs, and could be putting themselves in extreme danger. On a national level, persons wearing the wrong color or clothing have been confronted by the rival gang.
“Schools shouldn’t allow gang clothing, colors, or gang signs and symbols to be worn or displayed on school grounds. Administrators and educators also need to keep parents “in the loop” and communication with parents regarding potential gang involvement is crucial.
Kim’s greatest nemesis is gang graffiti.
“To a gang, graffiti serves to establish its presence, to establish its turf or territory, to warn of impending danger or threats and to put down rival gangs or issue a challenge. Part of the gang language includes the use of numbers as symbols or numbers that correspond to letters of the alphabet. It provides a kind of shorthand or code for gangs. For example, the numbers 1-26 correspond with the alphabet letters A-Z. 2-11 would mean BK (Blood Killer), a sign of the Crips. The number 5 always refers to the People Nation (i.e. a 5-point star symbol), and the number 6 always refers to the Folk Nation (i.e. a 6-point star symbol). Another number you may frequently see is 187 – the California penal code for murder. You may also see the use of dots by Hispanic and Asian gangs. Frequently, these identifiers are found in the web of the hand, on the back of the hand or between the fingers. They’re often in groups of three and may mean Mi Vida Loca (My crazy life) or family/friends/gang.”
Lately, Kim went on, the gangs of Sarasota have drawn even more attention to themselves, and the mood is now tense. At the beginning of March, childhood friends Cornell “Pickle” Harris and Robert B. Cummings joined two gangs. Harris became a member of the 24th Street Boyz, and Cummings joined Second Line. Police say Cummings called Harris on his cell phone about 10 a.m. on March 7, and then arrived at Harris’ apartment a few minutes later. Harris died after being shot once in the face and twice behind his left ear. His girlfriend, Whitney Torres, was also shot but survived. After the shootings, Cummings’ family was targeted by arsonists, who set fire to their house on 24th Street.
Pickle’s funeral was set for the next day, so when we set off that evening for the Sarasota County Fair for the second part of my gang education day, Kim wasn’t sure whether the mood would be rebellious or subdued in anticipation. Kim and her colleagues had cruised the Fairgrounds every evening that week on the lookout for gang activity, and thankfully there had been no serious occurrences to speak of. But tonight was Friday, and the Fair was going to close on Sunday. It was going to be busy.
Knowing that it really wouldn’t be advisable for me to be recognized or approached that evening, I’d thought hard about how to dress; very unassuming, of course, nothing to arouse attention or attract looks. I had thought about wearing glasses and a baseball cap pulled down over my forehead, but having listened to Kim’s presentation and only owning a blue one with the Yankees’ logo “NY”, I decided not to - goodness knows what kind of gang acronym that is. In the end I decided just to be me and wear dark pants and a shirt, but I would watch Kim and her colleagues from a sensible distance.
At 7 p.m. that evening, Kim picks me up at Gate 1 and we set off. She introduces me to her colleagues: SPD colleague Officer Helios Blanco, Special Agent Dave Sarney, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and Parole and Probation Officers Paul Howard and Dale Dear. I even get to meet Kim’s husband Chris and his partner Deputy Carrie Luce. Later I would see the two of them atop their beautiful horses Noble and Valor, to the delight of fairgoers who never tire of taking their photo.
“Team Kim” sets off around the Fairground, which is fast filling up as the sun goes down. I hang back about twenty feet, but Kim knows never to let me out of her sight; if I stop to look at something, she slows her pace until I’m finished. It’s as though she really does have “eyes in the back of her head.”
30 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour passes... all is tranquil as we make our way through the meanwhile dense crowds. The sun has gone down and the lights of the rides and vendor stalls shine bright in the darkness. Skywheel, Yoyo, Monkey, Maze, Nitro, Drop Zone... and of course Wings, Cotton Candy, Italian & Polish Sausage, Smoothies, Pizza... the smells, the sounds... we pass the livestock show and auction, we stop and chat with friends, acquaintances, vendors or fellow police officers on Fair duty.
It’s difficult to walk through the crowd now. Kim has a deadpan expression on her face, but her body language is innocently relaxed and positive to all who observe her. The light-gray polo shirt with embossed name and title over her left breast is tucked in to her standard issue black pants, which in turn are covered at the bottom by her sturdy black leather work-boots. Her gun, a 40-caliber Glock, is holstered securely on her belt next to her X26 Taser, capstun (Pepper Mace), asp (collapsible baton) and of course handcuffs. Her hair is pulled back and tied, her face is void of makeup. After all, she’s not here for a fashion show, even though people react as if she were on a catwalk and give her a wide berth. No time for chit-chat tonight.
The four burly men accompanying her occasionally strike up quiet conversation. She smiles at them politely and appears to join in. But while they are looking at six young kids on the left, her eyes are honing in on the teenage male twenty feet up ahead on the right. She begins to walk faster. Her companions keep up the pace, and suddenly they are beside the young man, surrounding him. Kim had seen his belt protruding from under his T-shirt, a typical gang trait. Kim questions him, and after about five minutes they escort him to the SPD Mobile Unit for further questioning. Kim notes his particulars and sends him on his way.
The same thing happens two or three times that evening – same story, young 15- or 16-year old males making themselves too conspicuous for Kim’s liking. Kim and her team make sure they are aware of the gang members and who belongs where. Fortunately though, it was a quiet evening, and as the Fair wound down that night, Kim and I parted ways, happy that nothing more serious had occurred, and that fairgoers would never even know that the Gangs of Sarasota had ever been among them.
The presence of this very conspicuous group of armed law enforcement officers causes diverse reactions: the majority of visitors, the law-abiding citizens of Sarasota and Manatee Counties, virtually ignore them. The Fairground owners, who employ their own private security company to oversee the fair, view them as a necessity to be tolerated, and politely acknowledge them. Stall-vendors and carousel-barkers see them as a deterrent against crime – pickpocketing, theft, rowdiness, drunkenness and violence – and greet them with a smile and a friendly word.
But if there was no Detective Kim Laster, Gang Investigator of the Sarasota Police Department, a packed Fairground on a Friday night would be a fertile breeding ground for the Gangs of Sarasota to come together to show off their colors, fight for their territory and commit crime.
Kim’s warning to parents and grandparents: “Don’t be so naïve as to think your kid can’t get involved in gang activity. If they have a MySpace account, for example, you need to know what’s on it and have access to it. It’s one of the first places I go to when I get a name, and it’s where a lot of my photos are from. It’s bad.”
If you’d like more information on gang activity in Sarasota, or you’d like to invite Kim to give a presentation at your workplace, you can contact her as follows:
Detective Kim Laster, Gang Investigator
Sarasota Police Department
2050 Ringling Boulevard, Sarasota, FL 34237.
Thanks to everyone at the Sarasota Police Department for their help, especially Chief Peter Abbott, Yvonne Shumway & Renee Gusto!