Battle Lines

Gangs keep their murderous hold on the streets of St. Louis. And kids like Lil' Robert Walker pay the price.

Inside the granite walls of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department headquarters hangs a bulletin board the cops use to track gang homicides. Installed in 1999, the board today overflows with the mug shots of nearly 150 juveniles and young men killed as a result of their gang affiliation over the past six years. Above the bulletin board a banner reads: "Live like a gang member, die like a gang member."

Standing in front of the board, gang unit supervisor Carlos Ross points to the photographs of a dozen kids he and his gang unit have hauled in. "I had him in my office, and him in my office and him and him," says the soft-spoken Ross, his mouth barely able to keep pace with his finger pecking its way across the photos. "None of them ever think they'll be on this board."

Ross' office is part Barney Miller, part P. Diddy. Among the law-enforcement certificates and placards lining the walls hang a half-dozen posters of rap artists — Nelly, Notorious B.I.G. and C-Murder. Ross grew up in East St. Louis in the '70s and '80s when it regularly made headlines as one of the nation's most crime-ridden cities. He managed to avoid gangs but had plenty of friends who fell under their sway. Several of his officers share similar backgrounds. "We want kids to feel comfortable when we're talking to them," explains Ross. "Yeah, we're the police, but we also understand where they're coming from."

Conceived in 1989 as a way to help police battle the rising scourge of youth violence in the city, the gang unit now comprises six officers and a sergeant. Its mission: to gather intelligence on gangs and pass that information onto other divisions — including juvenile, narcotics and homicide. A database kept by the cops currently lists 1,500 documented gang members in St. Louis, belonging to some 100 gangs.

Like the officers who serve under him, Ross wears street clothes to work. On this early June afternoon, he's sporting a Cardinals jersey, jeans and red-and-blue Nike high-tops. As they prepare for the day's events, the officers discuss gang members with the gusto of sports fans tracking player movements. A kid named JoJo is implicated in a possible gang murder. A guy named Old Boy is wanted on a narcotics possession. Little Willie is headed to the slammer.

Propped against a wall is a map of St. Louis marked in grids of blue and red, representing known gang territories. A laminated cover over the map allows officers to alter the ever-changing boundaries and allegiances. In recent years, gangs — primarily a north St. Louis problem — have migrated south. On this early summer day, the cops are planning a "jump out," in which they'll drive unmarked cars through several south-city neighborhoods in an attempt to identify and document gang members.

But, as is often the case, their first stop is the new Vashon High School on Cass Avenue. Since first opening its doors in 2002, the school has been a constant staging ground for fights, in part because the building lies smack in the middle of territory claimed by rivals gangs the JVL Bloods and 26-MAD Crips.

Summer classes are over for the day, and outside the school stand a group of fifteen teens. Although Vashon requires a dress code of khaki pants and neutral polo shirts, several of the students accent their uniforms with red undershirts and sneakers. At least two of the boys are on suspension and banned from being on school grounds.

A cop on street patrol claims one of the juveniles just threatened to shoot at him. As Ross questions the kid, officers work to disperse the crowd. Soon all is quiet again. The boy who threatened the officer is being carted away to the station, and Ross and his men are making their way to south St. Louis.

Outside a gas station at Arsenal Street and Lemp Avenue, the cops convene to suit up in bullet-proof jackets and determine their route. Riding in the lead position is Ross, followed by the three cars containing his gang unit. The cops are particularly interested in tracking the whereabouts of a new gang calling itself the Winnebago Boys. But Ross can't even get to Winnebago Street before he pulls his white Ford Excursion onto the sidewalk in front of a dozen kids ages eleven to sixteen.

The officers trailing Ross do the same, pulling their unmarked sedans — a Pontiac, Buick and a Chevy — alongside the curb on Ohio Avenue. Within seconds the officers have the youth lined up on the sidewalk. "What are you all doing here?" asks Ross, and his question greeted with mute stares. On the stairs leading up to a brick tenement lies a bottle of NyQuil abandoned by one of the kids. Ross says a popular high these days comes from mixing the cough syrup with codeine.

Several of the kids are familiar faces, having already been entered into the gang database, and the officers quickly needle them for information on their friends and ask that they lift their shirts to reveal any tattoos. "I know you," says Jeff Pickering, a tall, hulking cop with stringy, shoulder-length hair. "Yeah, I had you into the office a couple months ago."

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