Gangs in the City
6:30 am
Wed November 2, 2011

Think Gangs Are Only In Memphis' Poorest Neighborhoods? Think Again

Almost any night, you can turn on the TV news and hear about another shooting in Memphis.  Gangs stretch into every corner of Shelby County, not only in some of Memphis’ most gritty and impoverished neighborhoods.  The Shelby County Sheriff’s Department has identified approximately 8,400 gang members and 182 gangs and gang sets in the county.

Shelby County Sheriff Sergeant Charles Eldridge is dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt as he straps his black handgun to his thigh and puts on a black bullet-proof vest.  Eldridge leads the Street Crimes Unit, and until very recently, he was one of only a handful of officers dedicated to ridding the streets of gang and drug violence.

Eldridge guides his crew, all in unmarked vehicles, to South Memphis.  

“These are the old Kingsgate apartments,” Eldridge says as we drive in.  “It’s an old apartment complex.  They’ve created a neighborhood gang over here that’s comprised of other gangs – that are of all [the] major gangs, Bloods, Crips, Vice Lords.  I’ll make sure our guys are here before we go in.  There’s an old group that got going over here when it was Kingsgate, that started as the Kingsgate Mafia, and you still have several of those guys that live in here.   Here recently, it sparked back up, and it’s become a real big hot spot for violence and criminal activity, that’s mostly gang related.  And it’s usually Young Mob or Kingsgate Mob getting into it with some major gang.”

Eldridge grew up in Memphis, and he says, “This area used to be thriving. It was a great area.”  But now before rolling in during broad daylight, he radios his crew to ensure cover as we pull into the complex.

“When you come down here at night, it can get really, really dangerous,” he says.

We head down along a lengthy parking lot.  Some small groups scatter, leaving only a handful of people lingering.  There aren’t many cars here.  Many of the apartments are gutted, with no doors or windows, and graffiti marks the buildings.

“We had information at one point from a pretty reliable source that [the gangs] had weapons stashed throughout the complex in abandoned apartments,” Eldridge says as he keeps an eye out and stays in contact with his crew via radio.  “And it was just to ambush law enforcement and rival gang members when something happened.  But we have since come here and made an effort to clean that up.”

We drive past Eldridge’s crew, between the worn buildings, and then double back.  Eldridge gets out of the truck and catches up with his colleagues who are talking to a small group of shirtless young men who are sporting tattoos and wearing with baggy pants.  

As Eldridge gets back into the SUV, he says, “The one guy was distraught.  His mom had lost her medicine and they can’t find a number for the pharmacy or the doctor or anything.  Detective Holmes was able to get him the number.  Just do little stuff like that for these guys and it will come back for you.  Treat ‘em with respect and help ‘em out.  Little things like that, they might remember.  You come out here to arrest bad guys, but at the same time you’re making contact with the public and with guys who are in this area all the time.  That’ll one day help you out.”

We move through the complex.  Eldridge points to where gang members used to conduct their meetings, in an abandoned, boarded up building that used to be a daycare.  Now, they conduct their meetings out in the open, on the basketball court, so they can escape the police.  The Street Crimes Unit makes contact with a couple small groups in the complex before heading east toward Hickory Hill.

“Recently, in this area, we had a fight that happened over in one of these shopping centers lead to a shooting that happened further down the road.  And it’s gang related,” Eldridge explains.  “Ya know, it’s gangs fighting gangs down here.”

We continue heading east toward Southwind High School.  Here, the houses are big and new, lawns kept, and nice new cars grace the driveways.  In this area, graffiti isn’t as apparent.  That is, until we hit Flowering Peach Park.  

“This right here is a violation,” Eldridge says as he points to what looks like blue and black spray painted graffiti.  

The park sign and fence are tagged by the warring groups.

Eldridge says, unlike young people living in crime-ridden, impoverished neighborhoods, “These are suburban kids that grow up in nicer homes. Parents, hard-working, good jobs, and then they decide they wanna be gang members because it’s cool on the radio and everywhere else.”

Production assistance by Elizabeth Hollingsworth.