Street gangs tone down use of colors, tattoos

Street gangs tone down use of colors, tattoos

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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Nearly gone are the gang days of the 1980s and '90s, when the Bloods wore head-to-toe red, the Crips wore blue and Latin Kings wore black and gold.

Gangs from coast to coast have toned down their use of colors and are even removing or altering tattoos to avoid being easily identified by police and witnesses, law enforcement officials say.

Today, the most you might see is part of a red handkerchief hanging out of a back pocket or a gold and black baseball cap, said Johnmichael O'Hare, a Hartford police sergeant who monitors gangs.

"Many of them don't wear colors. They tell us they're not in gangs," O'Hare said. "They're trying to avoid detection from law enforcement."

Gang members also don't want to stand out because they are committing more white-collar-type crimes, such as credit card and identity thefts, authorities say.

"If you want to go into Macys or Neiman Marcus and use a fraudulently obtained credit card and you have all these tattoos, it's more difficult," said William Dunn, a Los Angeles police detective and author of the 2007 book "The Gangs of Los Angeles."

Another impetus: laws passed in several states making it easier for police to target gangs.

In Connecticut, officials can use racketeering laws once reserved for the mob to go after gangs. In Los Angeles, court injunctions allow police to enforce nighttime curfews and arrest people for hanging out in public and wearing gang colors.

"So we don't see so much wearing of the colors. We don't see so much of the tattooing," Dunn said.

When it comes to going to prison, gang members also don't want to be identified because they'll be placed in more restrictive conditions for security reasons, officials say.

Wearing colors has long been a way for gang members to show solidarity, but the FBI says gang members are indeed shying away from displaying identifiers. Often the only time colors and other identifiers are now displayed is at gang functions and funerals, according to the FBI's 2013 National Gang report.

While gangs are showing their colors less, they have given police another way to identify them — their use of Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites.

"Today they declare themselves gang members on the Internet," O'Hare said.

Still, he said, their detection-avoiding efforts on the street have made police officials' jobs a little harder. Hartford officers now have to get up close to identify gang members, he said. On a recent day, officers stopped a group of youths in commonplace T-shirts and shorts breaking a loitering law and made them all sit down.

O'Hare, interested in gathering information on gangs, got several of them to pull up their sleeves and pull down their shirt collars, revealing telltale tattoos of the Los Solidos gang — theater masks with the words "laugh now cry later" and the letters TSO for The Solid Ones, the English translation of their group's name. Officers then let the youths go — but kept their names and suspected gang affiliations in the event of future encounters.

In addition to well-established gangs like the Bloods and Latin Kings, police are dealing with smaller, neighborhood-based street gangs that can be just as violent and often wear no colors or tattoos at all, law enforcement officials say. The neighborhood gangs usually are friends who grew up together and claim several blocks as their territory, O'Hare said.

One such neighborhood gang in Hartford, Money Green/Bedroc, often wore the kind of athletic jerseys popular among kids nationwide, according to a state grand jury report issued in December.

The reputed leader, Donald Raynor, was arrested last year. Raynor, 29, is now on trial in state court in Hartford on a murder charge and awaits trial in five other cases involving attempted murder charges.

Police say he led the particularly violent gang, which sold drugs and had "hit squad" enforcers who were involved in shootings of rivals in 2007 and 2008. Raynor has pleaded not guilty in all the cases.

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