In a city known more for colleges and Toad Suck Daze, not many people associate gang activity with Conway.
For the most part, they would be right in thinking that the city is exempt from a problem that larger cities face. However, according to officer Gordon Ball with the Conway Police Department, ignoring it completely would be the wrong thing to do.
Among his other duties with the department, Ball is the certified gang relations officer and specializes in analyzing anything from gang signs, to crimes that are committed to see if there is a relation to any known gang members in the city. He has had that title since 2005 and said the community is fortunate in that most people probably do not realize gang members are living in the city because their activity has not become wide spread.
"Unless it affects you, you might not see it," he said. "Unless you are the person they are robbing or committing a crime against, you might not be aware that they are here. We are fortunate in that it has not hit Conway as hard as it has hit other cities, but that is not to say that it isn’t here. It could be a lot worse and we are thankful it is not."
Ball credits the small-town atmosphere the city has as part of the reason is he able to stay so well informed about gang related activity. He also credits the strong stance the police department has taken to be proactive against gang activity and gang involvement with the youth of the community.
"We are lucky that even for as many people have moved to the city, it has kept its small town feel," he said. "People talk about things happening in their neighborhoods, and they tell us about it, so we can be ready to take action against it. Also, our school resource officers do an exceptional job of staying on top of problems or issues in the school and keeping me in the loop when things pop up. We don’t want to turn a blind eye to it because we want people to be educated about it. You can’t do anything about a problem if you don’t know it exists."
According to Ball, there are members of country-wide gangs in Conway, such as the Crips, the Bloods, the Gangster Disciples, SUR 13, the Latin Kings and the Vice Lords. However, at this point the numbers are not enough to be as noticeable as it is with other areas. While he knows Conway hasn’t seen as much gang related crime as nearby Little Rock, Ball also knows that even one gang member means the police department can’t take anything for granted.
"Really, if you have one gang member, you have a gang problem," he said. "It doesn’t take much for the number of members to multiple in a short time. We look for patterns in drug trade crime, an increase of robberies, an increase of crime in one area of the city as well as recent parolees who are known to have a gang affiliation when we are determining if someone meets the criteria to be considered a gang member. However, the most important thing we can do is to remain vigilant at the schools to be sure that we can get to the kids before the gang members get to them."
Ball said the family atmosphere gangs provide is the reason most kids are drawn to the lifestyle and that while they may not commit crimes or be active in the violent activity, they can still be part of the gang.
"Whatever kids are missing from their home life, they will seek out in other areas," he explained. "For example, if a kid comes from a single-parent home, most of the time that parent has to work two or three jobs to support the family and is not home a lot. The kid will find a group where they belong and that gives them the attention they are not getting at home. It doesn’t have to be positive attention for a kid to feel like they belong and unfortunately, the one thing gang members are is each other’s family. They are close-knit and look out for each other so a kid having a hard time might join the group to get that protection."
Ball is confident that he knows who to target and who to tell officers to watch as they patrol the streets, but as with all groups, things change at a very fast pace.
"The one thing you have to keep in mind when studying gangs is that any pre-conceived notions you have in your head of what a gang member is, needs to be tossed away," he explained. "You can’t be biased or close-minded about who or what a gang is because they are made up of people from all races, all ages and both sexes. They are ever changing, which is what makes staying on top of their activity a challenge."
Ball stated that officers have found gang affiliations in crimes that happened over the past year but since the cases are ongoing, he was not able to comment on them specifically.
To help educate teachers and school administrators about what to look for from the students who might be part of a gang or thinking of joining one, Ball holds seminars with school employees to teach them what to look for or what to look for from students.
He also speaks with service groups or any other civic organizations that ask to know more about the gang issue in the city.
Ball can be reached at the police station at 450-6130.
(Candie Beck is a staff writer and can be reached at 505-1238 or at firstname.lastname@example.org)