Police say there are no gangs in Tupelo, but experts urge vigilance

By Danza Johnson/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – If police aren’t careful, they’ll find “wanna be” gangsters turning into real gangsters sooner than they think, according to experts.
Residents in different areas of Tupelo have expressed concerns recently about what they see as increasing gang activity. Sandra, who did not want her last name used, said she sees gangs on a daily basis from her Ida Street apartment window.
“If you look down at the park you can see them smoking, drinking and fighting,” said the longtime Ida Street resident. “They are selling drugs and other stuff. I’m scared to go near the park.”
The park she is referring to is Hancock Park, a popular area where young men gather to play basketball. Sandra said she notices all the young men dress in white T-shirts and baseball caps, clothing she says shows to which gang they belong.
Tupelo Police Maj. Anthony Hill said there are fights at Hancock Park as in other areas of the city, but he doesn’t attribute them to gangs. Long white T-shirts, sagging pants and baseball caps kicked to the side may all be bad fashion trends to some people, but they are not gang garb, according to Hill.
According to Mississippi Code 97-44-3, “‘Street gang’ or ‘gang’ or ‘organized gang’ or ‘criminal street gang’ means any combination, confederation, alliance, network, conspiracy, understanding or other similar conjoining, in law or in fact, of three or more persons with an established hierarchy that, through its membership or through the agency of any member, engages in felonious criminal activity.”
Hill said the groups people are calling gangs in Tupelo don’t fit that definition.
“People make the mistake of calling these groups gangs because of the way they dress and the fact they are hanging out together,” he said. “Tupelo is far away from having a gang problem. We do have groups that like to mimic the look of gangs and hand signs and things like that, but you can’t mistake fads for gang activity.”
Tupelo a ‘fertile area’
But according to David McElreath, legal studies professor at the University of Mississippi, Tupelo may be closer to a gang problem than it thinks.
McElreath said even though Tupelo has a problem only with “wanna be” gangs, its close proximity to Memphis – where gangs are a dangerous reality – makes Tupelo ripe for real gang activity.
“The glorification of gangs on television and through the media attracts these kids to wanting to portray that image,” McElreath said. “But being so close to Memphis poses a real threat to Tupelo where organized gangs can come down and recruit the wanna-be gangs. So Tupelo is really a fertile area for gang activity if the authorities don’t stay on top of it.”
In the early 2000s, Clarksdale was infested with gangs, according to McElreath. The Delta town was plagued with at least seven different affiliations of the Vice Lords, one unaffiliated Vice Lord gang and a group of Gangster Disciples.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Charlie Spillers was a key figure in helping to slow the gang problem there. He said gang problems don’t happen overnight, and Tupelo needs to be aware of that.
“Wanna-be gangs are just as dangerous as real gangs,” Spillers said. “They can and do get involved in the same types of crimes, so to say they aren’t a problem is not an accurate statement. Clarksdale was terrorized by the gangs. People were afraid. And a lot of those gangs started with wanna-be gangsters. So it is a problem if not handled properly.”
Spillers said the best thing for Tupelo to do is to keep a vigilant eye on the problem.
“Look for gang indicators and act on them,” said Spillers. “Clarksdale didn’t get the way it was overnight and neither will Tupelo. But stopping the problem before it really becomes a problem is the key.”
Hill encourages citizens to call police when they think they see gang activity.
“We will come out and check the situation out,” said Hill. “We are aware of the potential dangers of this type of activity, and we want to make sure it doesn’t get to the point where some other communities are seeing gangs.”
Contact Danza Johnson at (662) 678-1583 or danza.johnson@journalinc.com.