"By the time communities and institutions acknowledge that they have a gang problem, the situation may be out of control" was one of many topics that were discussed at a gang awareness training, hosted by the Tifton Housing Authority.
The local Housing Authority invited officers with the Tifton Police Department and Tift County Sheriff's Office and representatives with the Albany Housing Authority to join the two-day training that was held Tuesday and Wednesday.
"The Tifton Housing Authority, along with other local agencies, wish to demolish the walls of violence," said Jadonna Jackson, resident initiatives manager for the Tifton Housing Authority.
"Gangs have become a problem nationwide," she said. "This training will further strengthen our collaborative efforts with the TPD and TCSO, which will enable us to better serve our residents. I strongly believe that the residents in Tift County play a major role in the process as well. However, they must be educated so that they may know what to look for in their homes, as well as in their neighborhoods."
She said those attending the training can pass what they learn on to others. Devon Harris, a gang intervention specialist, was the speaker. He also brought along a reformed gang member, Chad W., to the training to share his past experiences.
Harris said they speak to people all over the state. They decided to come to Tifton after Jackson invited them. He noted he had met her at another training where he was a speaker.
Harris said their message is to educate communities on not the myths nor the hear-says, but "the facts of that world that's capturing a lot of young kids today."
He visits a lot of Department of Juvenile Justice systems and sees young men from communities who are there because they followed the crowd.
"They didn't realize what they were involved in. Sometimes law enforcement don't have enough man power or funding to deal with this issue instead of doing community policing," he said. "So, we're here to set up what we call a 'train the trainer,' where these folks will have enough material, information and knowledge to go back to their perspective organization and do a training and educate."
"The gangs do not sleep," Harris said. "We're here to be proactive, not reactive, and to really educate folks so you can have a viable, supportive community for our future and the youth. That's important. We're not law enforcement. We're here to bring a different angle, bring a solution instead of just locking up people. We're just community activists. We've been there. We know what it's about."
Harris has officially been a gang intervention specialist since 2007, but was first certified in 1997 through the National Gang Crime Research Center, which is based out of Chicago. He said he's been involved with at-risk youth since about 1994. He oversees a faith-based organization called Full Circle Refuge. They work with kids all throughout the southeast.
"This is a leg of what we do to try to educate communities," Harris said.
Chad said he recently started working with Harris and his team. He was in a gang for 14 years. He says he's now giving back to communities by helping to train people so they can take what they learn and pass it on to others.
Since he a former gang member, Chad can speak about what he lived for 14 years, which helps people be more aware so law enforcement can stop things before they happen.
Now age 30 with numerous tattoos on his face, neck and body, Chad said sometimes he looks at himself in the mirror for hours and cries. He got involved in a gang at 13 years old. He comes from a broken home and his father was always in prison.
"I was basically seeking a father figure and I found it in a couple of guys that brought me in when I was young — clothed me, fed me, brainwashed me into a hardcore criminal. And one day, I was just broke and I had enough of it."
He felt he needed a change, triggered when he was sitting in a jail cell. The mother of his children had sent him a drawing from his youngest son. It was then that something clicked.
"I was like, if I don't get out there, step up and be a man and take care of my kids, they're going to be sitting in the same position I'm in," Chad said. He and his wife have sons, ages four and five, and are expecting another child.
He said when he got out, he wanted to get into mentoring. He read a book called "Mentor: The Kid and The CEO." It changed his life. At the time, his 15-year-old brother-in-law was in a school for troubled kids, and he went with him to a presentation by the Full Circle team last year in February. He said it took off from there.
"It's been a long road, but in the end, it's worth it," he said. "I'm glad I'm doing what I'm doing."
When asked what message he would like to send to current gang members who may read this story, he said, "I'm sorry for the life that they're involved in, but that isn't the way out. There is a better way. You have to be a man, step up and want that change and take that change. If not, you might not live to that point to where you want to change. It's an every day battle. It's like being at war. You never know when you go to sleep if you're going to wake back up or not. I've lived it for 14 years. I've been there. I was a gang leader."
Chad said he led more than 100 men.
"A lot of gang members want better. As they get older, they realize this isn't what it is. They are just too scared to make that step," he said.
Listening to Harris and Chad has inspired local law enforcement and other agencies to take what they learned from the training and help change their communities for the better.
Latonia Simmons, property manager with the Albany Housing Authority, said she's gained a lot of knowledge from the training. She said she learned about the symbols and signals, commenting that she never associated it with gangs.
"We're going to step up our foot patrol and be more community oriented with the people who live in the area," she said, commending the Tifton Housing Authority for providing the training.
Sgt. Ryner Patrick, TCSO patrol sergeant and helps teach the CHAMP program, said he attended the training to basically gain a different perspective on how to deal with the gang violence and solving that issue. He said the training was very interesting and helpful, especially hearing the experiences from a former gang member. He said they will try to incorporate some of the information in their CHAMP program.
"The whole goal of that is to curb the behavior before it even starts," Patrick said. "That's why we target fifth graders, because these are 10- or 11-year-old kids and that's really a pivotal age. That's when a child changes from a small child into a pre-teen. That's when they start being presented with these tough choices."
Lt. Steve Hyman with the TPD said he brought all of the officers from the Crime Suppression Unit to the training, because they have been out working with the recent shootings they have had in the community. He said the officers have been walking through the neighborhoods at night.
"I want to make sure that they understand what they're up against and the characteristics and what to look for to make sure they're better educated and myself," Hyman said. "I've learned a lot."
He said what he picked up most from the training was how to educate the public and how to get them involved.
"Our officers are working day and night," he said, referring to the TPD and TCSO. "We are in these areas and doing what we can, but we can only do so much. A stray bullet doesn't know who it's supposed to hit."
He stressed, "The community has to support us."
Hyman said they have a tip line for people to call at the TPD: 229-391-3991.
"Gangs aren't just a law enforcement problem, it's a community-wide problem," Patrick said. "That's something we can gain from this training that everybody needs to come together and work. If we do that, we can achieve the goal and take care of the gangs."
To contact reporter Latasha Ford, call 382-4321.