They have been seen crudely tagged on fences, on Dumpsters in alleys or the back of buildings around the city: A star, a rabbit with one bent ear, a pitchfork.
They are the markings of Killeen’s gangs. Police have tied the city’s various gangs to several serious crimes. For the Killeen Police Department, the job of monitoring and curbing the gangs’ criminal activity is an ongoing battle.
According to information provided via the Killeen Police Department’s Citizen’s Police Academy program, the department has documented 46 gangs in the city with an estimated 443 gang members operating in city.
Killeen, like America, is known as a melting pot, but the diverse and transient population also means law enforcement officers like Killeen Detective Byron Goodsby see gangs from places as far away as Los Angeles, Mexico and even Haiti.
“Because this is a transitory community, we get gangs from a wide variety of areas,” Goodsby said.
Some of the most common gangs in the Killeen area, according to KPD, include well-known American gangs such as the Crips, Bloods and Gangster Disciples. Other area gangs, such as the Sureños and Norteños, are offshoots of larger gangs that formed in the nation’s prison system, or have loose ties to Mexican drug trafficking cartels. Some of the gangs claim specific streets in Killeen neighborhoods such as Long Branch, Heather Glenn or Marlboro Heights.
Crimes directly related to area gangs include burglary, robbery, drugs sales, prostitution and murder.
In April 2013, a “governor” for the Gangster Disciples street gang was wanted for engaging in criminal activity during a home-invasion robbery and the killing of a rival gang member in Killeen. Currently three men are facing capital murder charges in Bell County in the gang-related shooting death of a 29-year-old man in July 2013.
“Gangs basically raise the crime rate in Killeen through their activities,” Goodsby said. “The most common crimes we attribute to gang activity are robbery, drug sales, thefts and assaults.”
As part of the department’s organized crime unit, Goodsby assists with investigating gang-related crimes, as well as tracking and identifying gang members and their associates. Members are identified through a combination of criteria, including tattoos. Some readily admit their gang affiliation or are caught bragging about their membership on social media.
“A lot of these gangs will post anything online without thinking,” Goodsby said.
When suspects are identified as gang members, they can be placed in the department’s gang database, and will remain there for at least five years. The department also keeps tabs on nonmember gang “associates” and gang members recently released from prison.
Killeen’s fight against gangs isn’t uncommon in many Texas cities. The Texas Department of Public Safety’s annual gang threat assessment report stated there may be more than 100,000 gang members in Texas. These members are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime in communities.
“Gang violence and crime are a chief threat to public safety in Texas, and protecting our communities from these criminals remains a top priority,” DPS Director Steven McCraw said.
When it comes to gangs, Killeen faces a problem not commonly seen elsewhere: hybrid gangs.
“A hybrid gang is formed when a two or more gangs come together,” Goodsby said. “They can be from different gangs, but they coexist and work together to reach their goals.”
Those shared goals are usually money or drugs. Goodsby said some of the neighborhood gangs, including the hybrid gangs, are a growing concern.
While police continue to deal with the city’s gangs, Goodsby said Killeen residents can play a role in curbing gang activity by being vigilant and reporting it to police.
A spike in neighborhood crime and graffiti can point to possible gang activity, Goodsby said.
He also advised parents to be aware of who their children hang out with.
“Monitor your own children, and get to know the people they associate with,” Goodsby said. “Monitor their social media, see what they are looking at what kind of sites they are visiting.”