If you’re looking for Madison gang members, police officials say, you won’t find them protecting turf on local street corners, or walking in mobs with color-coded clothing.
The signs of what authorities say is a growing gang problem in Dane County are much more subtle, making the problem hard to notice for parents or people who aren’t directly tied to that scene.
But when tensions between gangs flare — as they did over the weekend in a string of shootings authorities suspect involved rival groups — they have done so in increasingly violent and high-profile ways, officials said, often marked by gunfire.
Police Chief Mike Koval is using the shootings, one of which happened outside West Towne Mall, to sound an alarm about gangs in Madison, saying those who minimized or ignored the problem before no longer have that luxury.
And while the problem was once ascribed to outsiders coming to the area and causing trouble, Koval and those in the department who have investigated gangs say it’s time for Madison to realize its citizens are the ones involved.
“These are kids whose parents grew up here, and kids who have gone to school in Madison all their lives,” said Officer Lester Moore, a former member of the department’s gang unit with a deep knowledge of local gangs. “This is a Madison home-grown issue.”
Moore and Sgt. Brian Chaney, who leads the gang unit, say Madison’s web of gangs includes many that are unique to this area, as well as local affiliates of more well-known national organizations such as the Vice Lords and Gangster Disciples.
All of those spawn smaller groups of crews and cliques, which can grow into their own larger gangs, Moore said.
Both say that unlike those found in bigger cities such as Chicago or Milwaukee, gangs in Dane County often aren’t based in certain territory, such as a particular block or neighborhood.
A single local gang might include members from Madison’s East and West sides, as well as others from neighboring communities such as Fitchburg, Moore said.
And while the popular image of gangs involves members showing off their affiliations by wearing certain colors — the Crips’ blue and Bloods’ red being the most well-known examples — Chaney said many Madison gangs don’t.
Those differences can keep Madison groups “under the radar” for many people, Chaney said.
“They don’t know what Madison’s gang problem looks like,” Moore said.
But while those signs can be harder to spot, authorities say gangs are resolving their conflicts in ways that are far more obvious, and that puts innocent people at risk.
Much of the area’s gang violence is motivated by personal disputes — someone disrespecting someone else’s girlfriend, or someone robbing another gang-involved person, Chaney said.
Those conflicts escalate as members come to their friends’ aid, he said.
And while those disputes may once have been resolved with fistfights, police said, more often now they involve firearms. Madison is lucky, Koval has said, that no bystanders have yet been hurt or killed in many of the incidents of gunfire across the city in recent months.
“You’ve got people shooting guns in broad daylight in some neighborhoods,” Moore said. “That’s the change that we’re seeing.”
Koval says he hopes the shooting at West Towne Mall on Saturday, in which a fight between two rival gangs ended after at least one person fired a gun outside the mall, is a “watershed moment” for anyone who thought the problem of gangs wouldn’t affect them.
Too often, he said, parents or others who grew up in Madison and lead comfortable lives away from poverty and violence believe gangs are a problem that affects only certain neighborhoods or people.
When shots ring out in a popular place like the mall, Koval said, his hope is that people will start to see gangs are a problem that affects the entire city.
“Can we now all agree that this is not isolated? (That) this is not an anomaly?” Koval said.
No one was hurt in the mall shooting, but officers investigated three other reports of gunfire on Madison’s Far West and Southwest sides between Saturday night and early Sunday morning, police said.
An 18-year-old was shot in one of the incidents.
Police have arrested three people in the shooting that wounded the 18-year-old, and believe at least one of them was involved in the West Towne shooting, police spokesman Joel DeSpain said.
It’s not clear if the two other incidents were related, he said.
Koval declined to identify the gangs involved in the mall gunfire, citing the department’s open investigation, though he did say one appeared to be a locally based gang while another was a Dane County syndicate of a national organization.
Still, Koval stressed that while some of the gangs might have ties to other cities, the people involved are “all products of Madison.”
“We’ve got to own what we own,” Koval said.
Doing so will require the city to address the reasons children join gangs in the first place — a conversation, Koval and others said, that will require schools, local organizations, mentors, churches and community organizations to get involved, along with police.
“Everyone has a piece in this,” Moore said.