The number of gang members in the Green Bay area may be double what it was just six years ago. But police say they’re not focused on the numbers. They’re focused on the crimes associated with gangs.
FOX 11 Investigates sat down with a former gang member to talk about the issue.
When you meet 21-year-old Aaron Olson, you can’t help but notice his face. It’s covered with tattoos.
“Most of them I got when I was drunk,” Olson said.
Olson says he got many of his tattoos during his time with the Gangster Disciples. Despite his Gangster Disciple tattoos, Olson says he’s no longer involved in the gang. He says gang members in Green Bay often commit crimes, like theft and drug dealing. But he says gangs here are nothing like gangs in bigger cities.
“It’s not the same around here,” Olson said. “Green Bay is not as tough as people want it to be. People fight, gang banging but that’s it. Sometimes people will pull a gun but they won’t shoot it. So it’s really not that kind of gang here.”
When asked if people should be concerned about gangs, Olson replied, “I don’t think so. It’s not that bad around here.”
The Green Bay area has had a few high profile gang-related incidents this year. Police say a fight outside Preble High School in February involved some people with gang ties.
Two days after the Preble fight, police say one man was stabbed during a gang fight at a birthday party in Howard.
While the gangs in Green Bay may not be quite as bad as they in some cities, Green Bay police say gangs are still an issue, and there are signs it’s getting worse.
“We’re not Chicago. We’re not Milwaukee. But we do have gangs here and I do think it would be ignorant on the part of the police and stake holders at large to think that you could do nothing about it and it would just go away,” said Lt. Gary Richgels, one of the supervisors for Green Bay’s gang unit.
When asked if Green Bay has a gang problem, Richgels replied, “yes.”
In a follow up question, FOX 11 Investigates asked how significant the problem was. Richgels replied, “I don’t think it’s significant.”
Green Bay police may not think its significant today. But that’s not what the Wisconsin Department of Justice reported back in 2008.
In the agency’s special report on gangs in Northeast Wisconsin, Green Bay police “…reported significant problems…” with gangs.
The 2008 report found 32 known gangs in Green Bay and more than 500 known gang members in the city.
The situation today?
“We have gang members in the Green Bay metro area. Absolutely,” Richgels said.
FOX 11 Investigates asked Richgels if he has any idea how many.
“No,” he replied. “It’s difficult to tell.”
That’s what Richgels initially told us. But we kept digging for answers. In a follow up phone call, Richgels told FOX 11 Investigates the department has documented 40 different gangs in the area and as many as 1,000 gang members who either are or at one time were in the area. That means the number of gang members in Green Bay may have doubled in the last six years.
But Richgels says it’s hard to put an exact number on it because people have different definitions of what it means to be a in a gang.
“People use the term “wanna-bees” quite often,” Richgels said.
When asked if he thinks there are more wanna-bees than actual gang members, Richgels replied, “Me, personally? I believe so, yes.”
“I think the assessment, at the time, was to wake up a lot of agencies towards the potential threats that were out there,” said special agent Bryan Kastelic from the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
“There are hard core elements that are out there that are truly dedicated to criminal activity and controlling the criminal activities of others. I will never under-estimate that aspect,” Kastelic said. “But what we’re seeing here in the streets of Green Bay, we’re not seeing that level of violence you would anticipate in other cities.”
Green Bay police have a relatively new approach to gangs. In the past, Green Bay had one, full-time gang officer. But that’s no longer the case. The department found it needed more officers to cover more shifts. So four years ago, the agency started a gang identification unit. Today, that unit has 15 members”
“This is not their full-time job,” Richgels said. “These are patrolmen. These are community police officers that have decided to sign up for extra training, to have signed up to become specialists in identification of gang members and identification of graffiti.”
While the gang unit has tried to crack down on gangs, former gang member Aaron Olson says there’s not much police or anyone else can do to get rid of gangs.
FOX 11 Investigates asked Olson what could stop people from getting involved in gangs.
Olson replied, “I have no idea. People are always going to join a gang or try to make one. There are just people out there like that. So I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to stop it.”
But that doesn’t mean police will stop trying.
When asked whether the Green Bay Police Department takes gangs seriously, Richgels said, “Absolutely.”