USA - Gangs in Uniform

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  1. Are moral waivers opening the ranks to criminals?

    By Michelle Tan - [email protected]
    Posted : September 03, 2007

    Sgt. Juwan Johnson was surrounded.

    As 11 soldiers closed in around him, the 25-year-old faced the leader of the group.

    One of the men hit Johnson, knocking him out.

    “Is this what you want?†one of his attackers asked when he got up.

    “Yes,†he replied.

    Then the men, many of whom had served with Johnson in Iraq, savagely beat him for six minutes.

    Johnson later was found unresponsive in his barracks room. He was pronounced dead a few hours later. It was July 4, 2005. He was weeks away from leaving the Army and Germany to reunite with his pregnant wife. The Iraq war veteran died at the hands of his fellow soldiers during what investigators believe was a “jumping in†initiation into the Gangster Disciples, a powerful Chicago-based gang.

    Johnson’s brutal death highlights what analysts say is a growing gang problem in the military. A Jan. 12 FBI report said gang-related activity in the U.S. military is increasing and poses a threat to law enforcement officials and national security.

    Some experts point to looser recruiting standards, implemented in recent years as the Army struggles to meet recruiting goals, and the increase in waivers given to recruits with criminal records as a factor behind gang presence in the ranks.

    Each year since 2003, an increasing number of applicants with records of everything from traffic violations to felony convictions have been allowed to enlist in the Army under “moral waivers.†In fiscal 2006, 7.9 percent of all recruits received moral waivers, compared with 4.6 percent in 2003, according to Recruiting Command.

    So far this year, more than 9,000 recruits have received moral waivers to join the service. That’s 11 percent of all new enlistees in fiscal 2007, which ends Sept. 30.

    Army officials could not say whether any gang members or former gang members were allowed into the ranks under waivers. But at least one expert said it stands to reason that if you open the door to more people with criminal backgrounds, some of them will have gang affiliations.

    “It’s sort of like putting bad gas in your gas tank,†said Hunter Glass, a former sergeant with the 82nd Airborne Division and longtime police officer in Fayetteville, N.C., who now works as a private consultant on security threat groups. “It’s probably cheaper ... but after a while you have to repair your engine.â€

    In fiscal 2006, 1,002 of the 8,330 moral waivers granted to incoming soldiers were for a felony on that individual’s record, according to information from Recruiting Command. In 2003, the total was 459 waivers for felonies out of 4,644 moral waivers; so far this year, 1,293 such waivers have been granted.

    Waivers for felony criminal charges must be reviewed by a general officer. They are not granted for offenses such as convictions for sexually violent offenses, alcoholism, drug dependency, and the trafficking, sale or distribution of drugs. The Army does not allow the enlistment of anyone who is facing pending criminal charges, on probation, on parole, in confinement, or who instead of or as a result of being prosecuted is ordered by a court to sign up.

    Gang affiliation alone doesn’t prevent a person from serving in the Army, said Col. Gene Smith, chief of the military police policy division in the office of the provost marshal general, but if that person also has a criminal record, that will be considered before he is allowed into the Army.

    Considering offering a waiver to otherwise qualified recruits is the right thing to do for those Americans who want to answer the call to duty, according to the information provided by Recruiting Command.

    Carter Smith, a retired sergeant first class and former Criminal Investigation Division agent who teaches criminal justice at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., agrees, but said he sees potential pitfalls in the practice.

    “We’ve got a lot of former gang members who’re fighting a great war [overseas],†he said. “But I’m concerned about when they come home. My gang-related concern is violence and organizational skills. They would be instant [gang] leadership material.â€

    He said he believed former gang members deserve a shot at Army service, but not if they have criminal backgrounds.

    if the Army is going to recruit and accept former or current gang members into the service, he said, it should also work to make sure those people successfully get out of the gangs.

    “If we get folks who’re clean enough and dedicated enough to join the military, go for it, but track them,†he said.

    Army officials said they recognize and are concerned about gangs infiltrating the ranks. But they added that the problem is not a major threat and that leaders and criminal investigators are trained to monitor and identify possible gang activity.

    “We do not see it as a rampant problem, but we’re not denying it,†said a senior official with Army Criminal Investigation Command, who asked not to be identified. “It’s a low threat, but it’s a serious problem. We’ve never denied that it exists.â€
    Convictions for beating

    Two soldiers, Pfc. Terrence Norman and Sgt. Rodney Howell, were convicted in mid-July of beating and punching Johnson to death, said Maj. Wayne Marotto, an Army spokesman.

    Norman was convicted July 19 and Howell on July 24 of involuntary manslaughter and conspiracy to violate a lawful general regulation by participating in an initiation “rite of passage.†Howell also was convicted of knowingly making a false official statement.

    Norman was sentenced to 12 years in prison; Howell was sentenced to six. Both received a dishonorable discharge.

    A third soldier, Staff Sgt. Alre Hudson, is scheduled to go to trial Oct. 1 in Kaiserslautern, Germany, for Johnson’s death. He is charged with involuntary manslaughter, violating a lawful general regulation by participating in an initiation “rite of passage†and aggravated assault.

    All three soldiers are assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 29th Support Group.

    Johnson, a Baltimore native, joined the Army after high school, and he had been a soldier for about seven years when he died.

    His family doesn’t believe he intended to join a gang.

    “Gangs? That is not Juwan’s character,†said Cheryl Williams, his grandaunt. “Juwan, he was all about positive things. It was like he joined the military to get away from the stuff that was here in the street, something positive.â€

    Johnson had toyed with making the Army a career, but after deployment to Iraq in 2004 and the much-anticipated baby carried by his high school sweetheart and wife, Kenika, he decided to get out. When he was killed by fellow soldiers, he had only a couple of weeks before he was due to return to his family. Johnson’s son, who inherited his name, was born five months later. He will be 2 on Dec. 1.

    “They should all pay for this,†Williams said of the soldiers charged in Johnson’s death. “They deserve to pay. The sad part is they knew how bad they beat him, but nobody wanted to take him to the hospital because they didn’t want any questions.â€

    Williams said the family is now concerned that something like this could happen to someone else in the Army.
    ‘An emerging threat’

    According to the FBI report, members of nearly every street gang have been identified on domestic and international military installations, and gang members have been known to enlist in the military by failing to report past criminal convictions or by using fraudulent documents.

    The report also said military-trained gang members present “an emerging threat†to local law enforcement officials who are unfamiliar with dealing with gangsters who have military expertise.

    “While allowing gang members to serve in the military may temporarily increase recruiting numbers, U.S. communities may ultimately have to contend with disruption and violence resulting from military-trained gang members on the streets of U.S. cities,†the report said.

    The FBI report said that since 2004, authorities have identified more than 40 military-affiliated Folk Nation gang members at Fort Bliss, Texas, who have been involved in drug distribution, robberies, assaults, weapons offenses and a homicide. Since 2003, nearly 40 gang members have been identified at Fort Hood, Texas, and members of the Gangster Disciples based on post have been responsible for robberies, assaults, thefts and burglaries, according to the report. In addition, nearly 130 gang and extremist group members have been identified at Fort Lewis, Wash., since 2005, and in 2006, the Defense Criminal Investigative Service reported that gang members are increasing their presence on or near U.S. military installations.

    The commanders of CID, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and the Naval Criminal Investigation Service sent a memo to the director of the FBI to dispute some of the statistics and facts in its Jan. 12 report. The FBI has since agreed to work more closely with these military agencies when preparing future reports, said Chris Grey, a CID spokesman.

    CID doesn’t have a dedicated gang task force, but the command works closely with federal and local law enforcement agencies to address the threat, Grey said. CID special agents are members of or involved in gang task forces at local law enforcement agencies across the country, he said.

    “If we see a rise above the low threat assessment, we’ll consider forming a task force,†Grey said. “We’ve never denied that it’s an issue, but it’s not as widespread or rampant as people make it out to be. Is there an issue? Yes. Should everyone be aware of it? Yes. It’s part of society, unfortunately.â€

    CID conducts about 10,000 felony investigations a year, and in 2006, 16 — or 0.16 percent — were gang-related, the senior CID official said. The official said CID conducted 10 gang-related investigations in 2005, five in 2004 and four in 2003.

    In all, CID special agents reported 61 gang-related incidents on 18 Army installations in 2006. That number includes the 16 that warranted the investigations reported that same year. There were 23 incidents in 2005, nine in 2004 and 12 in 2003.

    Incidents can range from homicide to a report about suspicious-looking teenagers loitering outside a person’s home.

    The CID official attributed the increase in gang-related reports and investigations to a recently adopted uniform method in identifying such activity.

    “We believe we’ve increased reporting rather than increased incidents,†he said.

    Col. Smith agreed.

    “We’re very careful to report a crime as gang-related even if the connection is very tenuous,†he said. “There’s a heightened awareness in recent years.â€

    To be sure, Army law enforcement officers have recently increased actions to target gang activity.

    In 2006, CID adopted criteria laid out by the National Crime Information Center on how to identify a potential gang member. Agents were trained to document at least two of five criteria, including suspects who dress in gang colors or one who has been arrested more than once with known gang members.

    Some of the gangs found by CID investigations to have connections inside Army ranks include the Gangster Disciples, the Bloods, the Crips, Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs and MS-13.

    Nevertheless, Army officials caution against overstating the level of gang activity in the service.

    “To put this in context, you’ve got to look at the California state attorney general who said 27 percent of the state’s homicides are because of gang activity,†the CID official said. “CID conducted 2,697 violent crime investigations in 2006. Only six had soldier gang members as suspects.â€

    Two of the 16 CID investigations in 2006 were homicides.

    In the first, a Fort Bragg, N.C., soldier was arrested by local police for a robbery and murder at an off-post convenience store, according to CID’s 2006 gang activity threat assessment report. The soldier was accused of driving two civilians to the store to commit robbery. During the crime, the store employee was mortally wounded, and one of the civilian suspects was shot. Local police identified the offenders as gang members, but they did not specify which gang.

    The second murder investigation took place at Fort Campbell, Ky. Two soldiers became involved in a verbal altercation with one or more unidentified individuals in a Clarksville nightclub parking lot off post. One soldier was shot in the chest; he later died. The other was shot in the hand; he survived. Local police suspect the incident was gang-related, but the case remains under investigation.

    The other investigations included crimes related to drugs, assault, robbery, sexual assault and weapons smuggling.

    One of those cases took place in Iraq. CID special agents were investigating a report of a soldier raping another soldier at Camp Taji when a search of the suspect’s room yielded photos of the suspect and several men and women displaying hand gestures or signs appearing to be the letter “W.†The suspect claimed to belong to a group called When Gangsters Get Together.

    Of the 31 gang-related investigations conducted by CID between 2004 and 2006, about half involved junior enlisted soldiers, E-1 through E-4; a third were civilians; and 14 percent were sergeants or staff sergeants.
    Learning to lead

    The gang problem in the military is “a growing problem, and it’s one of these deals if left alone could be a true powder keg,†said Glass, the former 82nd Airborne trooper who now works as a private security consultant. “Everybody always assumes the most dangerous things a gangster can learn in the military is moving and shooting,†he said. “The most dangerous thing a gangster can learn in the military is leadership.â€

    He estimated that 1 percent of active-duty military personnel is affected by gangs, and that number may be higher in the National Guard and reserve components.

    “Gangs are a threat to society,†Glass said. “We spend millions to create social programs, laws and specialized enforcement units to deal with these groups and their members, and they still grow.

    “Gangs make up the majority of inmates in our prison system. Locked behind steel and cement 24 hours a day under close observation and regimented schedules, they still manage to assault, rape, kill and run criminal enterprises inside and outside of prison walls. Is it not ludicrous to believe that members of these same gangs and like-minded individuals would behave any different in the military?â€

    The problem with hard-core gang members is they’re fiercely loyal to their gangs, Glass said.

    “It’s a United States problem that is affecting the military,†he said. “It is a nice, big, fat, universal problem that is now affecting more and more every place, and the military is getting affected.â€

    When asked for a solution to curb the gang problem in the military, Glass said gang members should be dealt with “extremely harshly,†especially if they commit crimes while they’re on active duty.

    “No one’s remembering that it was a gang member [who committed the crime],†he said. “They’re remembering it was a soldier. The last thing we want is for all our veterans and our heroes to be down the road and somebody’s going, ‘Yeah, you are all a bunch of thugs.’ â€

    Glass said his concern is what soldiers affiliated with gangs take back to the streets when they are released from the service.

    Lt. Steve Lucero, an intelligence officer who specializes in security threat groups for the Colorado Department of Corrections, said members with military training typically rise to the top of the gang structure.

    “They learn their military styles and they use them to embellish the gang productivity, their networking, all that stuff,†he said.

    The appeal to gangs of soldiers or anyone with military training has increased with the evolution of gang-related crimes, Lucero said.

    “If you have somebody that’s already trained, especially militarily, and now you figure guns of all different sizes have been used [in crimes] now, these guys are more knowledgeable about that,†he said. “They know what does what, what can go through walls, what does more damage to this and that, so they become teachers to the street gangs. They become very valuable to the set, and because of their knowledge, they gain respect.â€

    Carter Smith, the former CID agent who now teaches criminal justice, agrees and said society as a whole faces a growing problem with gangs “because we’ve been ignoring it for so long. It’s like a cancer. I think part of it is nobody knows how to address it. Nobody ... will tell you the way to address a problem is hope it’ll go away. Since we don’t have a solution, it’s getting worse.â€

    Col. Smith said the Army is doing a lot to educate its community about gang issues, including having military police or CID agents provide briefings on gang involvement to soldiers and family members.

    “There are a million people in our population ... and we draw from all societies,†he said. “Gangs are in our society. I would not characterize gangs as [being] pervasive in our installations. It’s a negative trend line and we’re concerned about it, but ... I think we provide a great opportunity for people to make a new life.â€

    Soldiers are taught to avoid gangs and emb Army values, and leaders are educated on how to look for potential gang activity or gang affiliation, he said.

    “It’s like drugs,†Col. Smith said. “We teach leaders how to contend with this issue because it’s an issue we feel is potentially detrimental to good order and discipline.â€

    The Army is very much a slice of American society, he said.

    “Our demographics are the same,†he said. “Whatever you find in American society, you’ll find to some measure in the Army.â€
  2. Sadly that is what happens when you lower entry standards, you only have to look at the drongos that are allowed to join today when 10 years ago they wouldn't have even got through training.
    Our American friends have got snags, that's for sure.
  3. This is what happened to the US Army after Vietnam (Read Beckwiths 'About Face'), basically the Army in Germany disintegrated into factions more interested in drug dealing/settling scores than being soldiers.
    Stand by.
  4. I remember seeing something about US A/C Carriers on Sky TV about 18 months ago where they said that there were "No Go" areas, like mini ghettos, on board.
  5. Seaweed

    Seaweed War Hero Book Reviewer

    So what's new? There were race riots going on in US carriers forty years ago. I recall a bunch of RN libertymen being adrift in Olongapo. Their explanation was that the USN Officer of the Patrol had coralled them out of the way while black and white American sailors fought it out over who could ride on the lliberty buses.

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