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Teens Caught in Middle of Anti-Gang Crackdown
By Amy Radil
March 12, 1999
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In October 1997, a group, which called itself a gang, killed 18-year-old William Booth. Since then, Grand Rapids police have used special anti-gang laws to counter what they say is the threat of youth gangs. However, local teenagers say the real result is they're being harassed.

NINE PEOPLE WERE CHARGED AFTER William Booth's body was found knifed and shot in a mining pit near Grand Rapids. They overheard police use his name in connection to a gang-task-force investigation, and mistakenly believed he was a police informant. Many people in Grand Rapids describe Booth's killing as a wake-up call on a problem they'd ignored, or even dismissed.

Undem: There has been one horrible dastardly crime that I think shook most of us to our very roots.
Public Defender John Undem says Booth's death scared local people, and they support police efforts against gang activity.
Undem: From the standpoint that what happens with this gang activity is that it's a breeding ground out of which these horrible things happen, I think it deserves - my opinion is it deserves - every bit of attention that law enforcement spends on it in Itasca County.
But some in Grand Rapids say the town does not have a gang problem. The people who killed William Booth do not fit the typical profile of a youth gang. The men who pleaded guilty to killing Booth were 43 and 26 years old respectively. And Dean Scherf, an investigator for the Itasca County Sheriff's Department, says although the group called itself Gangster Disciples - a reference to the notorious Chicago-based gang - it was purely local.
Scherf: There was nothing to link the Grand Rapids Gangster Disciples with Minneapolis, St. Paul, Chicago, Milwaukee, whatever. The only thing that was similar with the gangs is they were using the signs and symbols of the Gangster Disciples, which is common, and they were wearing the colors of the Gangster Disciples, again which is common. But any larger connection to actual city gangs to here, there was none.
But labels such as "gang" are important, particularly when those labels have legal consequences. Because the county prosecutor designated Booth's death a gang crime, all the people involved faced longer sentences. And in the trial of the remaining defendant, Kellie Sater, the gang designation allowed the state to bring in evidence it otherwise could not.

There have been no instances of serious or violent gang crime in Itasca County since the Booth murder. Kids like high-school freshman Becky Polzin say that's because there are no criminal gangs. They say they're being harassed.
Polzin: If I were to wear a black-and-yellow jacket and big black baggy pants, and just walk down the street not doing anything wrong, just walking home, they'd probably stop and pull me over for no reason at all.
Sophomore Matt Kessler agrees.
Kessler: And I mean, they'll bust cars for having a broken tail light and then search the car.
Despite the finding that the Grand Rapids Gangster Disciples were a local group, Grand Rapids Police Chief Mike Cary maintains the large majority of gangs in rural Minnesota are linked to Chicago gangs, with connections through the Twin Cities. Both Cary's admirers and detractors describe him as an anti-gang crusader.

Cary and his fellow officers point proudly to the effect of "zero tolerance" of petty crime on the local town square, a scenic area where teenagers once hung out. Police stepped up enforcement there, giving tickets for disorderly conduct, loitering, and underage smoking. These days the square is empty.
Cary: Just by our presence, some people thought it was harassment, I say it's not harassment, it's our presence at public facilities as part of our job to protect and serve and we were there, and just by our presence and our knowledge of their activity was enough to intimidate them from our community and move them on.
Some say the anti-gang focus gives kids a perverse power. Grand Rapids was traumatized when gang graffiti turned up on a brand-new playground, only to find the perpetrators were middle schoolers who had spray cans, but no gang affiliation. Teenagers don't deny that some of their peers belong to local gangs, mimicking the clothes and culture they see on MTV. But they say so-called gang activities amount to the same stuff kids have done since time immemorial.

Investigators confirm the most common gang crimes are graffiti and damage to property. Legal-Aid attorney Tim Aldrich says the crimes he sees in court amount to typical delinquent behavior.
Aldrich: One thing I've been trying to look for are those types of kids that, do they have a gang-type influence, and quite frankly I haven't seen that. Most are smoking or minor-consumption issues. I would say all of those kids are fairly your typical kids that are having their bad behavior through their teen years.
But anti-gang initiatives have raised the stakes for teenagers. Belonging to a gang isn't illegal, but it can get kids' names into police files. Statewide, police forces are compiling lists of people who meet criteria set out by the Statewide Gang Strike Force. The criteria include how the person dresses, whether he or she has body piercings or tattoos, and whether the person is seen to associate with gang members or turns up in photos with them. This information - known as a profile - also gets passed on to the state Gang Strike Force.

The Itasca County Sheriff's Department says about 80 people have been profiled locally, with the help of school officials. And they say it's possible for people to be profiled without their knowledge. Legal Aid advocate Pat Schultz says she's concerned Native-American kids are disproportionately targeted by the profiles in the nearby town of Deer River.
Schultz: They get searched more. And there's been new rules made in the school that keeps kids out of school dances. And that brings up some confidentiality issues. Who has the list and who stands at the door and says "you can come in and you can't"e;, and why is this kid's name on the list and this name isn't? There's been a lot of anger in the Native-American community over this.
Deer River High School confirms profiled students are barred from school dances. Parents have contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which has protested against the profiles in other states. Sociologist Mike Males is the author of "Framing Youth, Ten Myths about the Next Generation. " He says without a specific focus on crime, the profiles merely serve to scapegoat juveniles.
Males: There's a lot of terminology that's muddled here. Again, do the police engage in this type of surveillance or activity based on whether people have actually committed a crime or not? I think that's the most important distinction. Because otherwise they're just targeting people for who they are, not what they do.
Males points to Department of Justice statistics showing a reduction in juvenile crime since 1994. Since that time, juvenile arrests nationwide have dropped 18 percent, while the juvenile population has increased four percent. Law-enforcement officials in Grand Rapids confirm the drop-off in crime, which may be partly the result of their efforts. Whatever the reason, attorney Tim Aldrich says emphasis on juvenile crime tends to obscure the larger need for supportive relationships between adults and young people.
Aldrich: It's, quite frankly, as simple as that. We need to start looking at those kids when we walk by them in the street and say "hi" to them.
The focus on gangs and juveniles by state law enforcement is only expected to intensify. Attorney General Mike Hatch and House Republicans have called for increased funding of the Gang Strike Force, expanded sentences for crimes deemed to benefit gangs, and broader prosecution powers for the Attorney General's office in trials of suspected gang members.

Amy Radil covers northeast Minnesota for Minnesota Public Radio. You can reach her at