Goshen News, Goshen, IN

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April 28, 2012

Gang expert: Be firm, be fair

ELKHART —  A father and his young son are close together, their faces filling the frame. The little boy’s face is visible. Dad’s is partly obscured by a black bandanna.

Dad’s in a gang.

“Think about it,” Rich Matteson said Friday at the Elkhart FOP lodge, referencing the photo on the overhead screen. “There’s dad. In a few years (the child’s) going to be your kindergarten student. How are you going to deal with that?”

Matteson is the director of transportation and safety for Concord Community Schools. Formerly full-time with the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department, he’s now a reserve. Matteson’s also a local source for gang information, and that’s what he shared during a conference Friday involving educators, police and probation officers and youth and social workers.

One piece of advice? Find out more about where at-risk young people are coming from, Matteson said.

“You don’t have to live the life, folks, but take the time to learn about it,” he said. “...Go out there and look how these kids live. Say, ‘No, you’re right, I’ve never lived this life, but I’m not afraid to come into your hood.’”

Matteson cautioned against trying to intimidate gang members. When interacting with them, he stressed, don’t allow them to use gang hand signs.

“This is a sign of disrespect,” he said.

Treat them as individuals, Matteson said, and be decisive, firm and fair. And show some respect, too.

“If you give them a little respect, guys, it will take you a long, long way,” he said. “You’re not going to save every one of them. But if you build this reputation of showing them respect, they know you’re decisive and firm and fair, you treat everybody the same — your name will be all over the street.”

Gangs are in the recruitment business, Matteson said, adding that students who are struggling in school are prime targets.

“‘I can have you making more money out on the street than you ever will by getting a high school education,’” Matteson paraphrased the gang offer.

Matteson also described the different stages of gang involvement, from hardcore down to “wannabe.” Be wary of wannabes, he said.

“You’ve got to be careful,” he said. “They’ve got something to prove to everybody. ...They are looking to build their street rep, whether it’s through assaulting, stealing, burglaries, whatever it is.”

In Matteson’s view, gang involvement isn’t age-specific.

“Educators, law enforcement — we’re dealing with kids in third and fourth grade who are gang members,” he said. “I’ve got people in their 60s who are still claiming the gang they started with when they were 13, 14.”

Conference attendees saw examples of gang colors, apparel and hand signs. Then there’s the graffiti, which Matteson said marks gang territory and is often used to communicate threats and challenges to other gangs.

“Guys, graffiti is nothing more than a newspaper,” Matteson said. “...If you know what you’re looking for, it will tell you what’s going on.”  

Matteson acknowledged that cleaning up graffiti is expensive for business owners. He feels they should do it anyway.

Matteson said the notion that gang crimes only target other gang members is false. The whole community sees graffiti defacement. And killings impact more than the victim.

“When they do a drive-by, are they only affecting the gang member they’re shooting at? No,” he said. “...There are kids who don’t even know who (the victims) are in school — because most of our high schools around here are pretty big — but at the same time, trust me, it sets them back as well. Because they’ve lost one of their classmates.

“There’s going to be one less name that’s going to be read the day they graduate.”

Friday’s conference was sponsored by Elkhart County Support Our Kids, a group focused on bettering the lives of local young people.

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