In recent months, the gangs have faced indictments for their criminal activities. But there are apparently still some members around, as well as groups of kids in smaller neighborhood gangs. Sgt. Keith Stith oversees the county's anti-gang initiative via the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office Municipal Task Force. He said that the major gang operating in Jersey City has been the Bloods. The Bloods originated in California and are estimated to have over 1,000 members nationwide.
In May, members of the Sex, Money, Murder faction of the Bloods gang, which operated in Jersey City, were indicted on 18 counts, including assault and distribution of illegal drugs. In June, six members of the Latin Kings gang based in Jersey City were indicted for attempted murder. The same month, New Jersey's Attorney General Peter Harvey announced the results of a statewide survey of police departments in 479 municipalities done by the State Police in 2004. Police found an increase in gang activity in 44 percent of the municipalities that had gangs, and 29 percent of suburban municipalities saw their police reporting gangs.
Local law enforcement authorities say that the biggest problem is not necessarily an increase in the membership of the organized gangs, but young men and women developing their own small gangs and emulating gang behavior.
"You have young people making a name for themselves; no matter what society you're in, you will have groups hanging out and dwelling on the things that make them the same," said Jersey City Police Detective Calvin Hart.
Authorities are cautiously optimistic that gang activity, especially the violence, is being contained in Jersey City. "Things are under control," said Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio.
"That's based on what our gang intelligence provides. And it is a constant battle that gangs do not become entrenched in Jersey City." DeFazio credited the extensive work of the Jersey City Police Department's Anti-Gang Task Force with combating the problem.
Mistaken identity, unmistaken impact
Last year, a young man in Jersey City was killed because he was mistaken for another man who was wanted by a gang.
That is how Valerie Taylor Thomas described what led to the murder of her brother, Michael James Taylor, on July 19, 2004. Taylor, then 17, was a St. Mary's High School student and an aspiring basketball player. He was attending a barbecue at 147 Wilkinson Ave., on his own street, the day he was killed.
After 10 p.m., he was found by the three young gang members and shot once in the head, chest, and the stomach. But it turns out that they shot the wrong guy.
The investigation into Taylor's murder is ongoing, according to the Hudson County Prosecutors Office. But Valerie Taylor Thomas said she learned more about the incident recently when three boys were brought into court to face arraignment pertaining to the murder.
She can still remember what it was like to see the three youngsters walking into court.
"They had this arrogant swagger, no remorse whatsoever for taking another life," said Taylor Thomas. "Michael was a skinny kid, a baby, and those guys were big, muscular guys. They could have beaten him up."
According to Taylor Thomas, the boys allegedly had been given an assignment from a gang to find a Wilkinson Avenue resident who had offended one of the gang members.
She said that Taylor's death devastated not only his immediate family but his neighbors and acquaintances, who remembered him as a "good kid" who begged his parents to transfer him out of Snyder High School and into St. Mary's to get away from the violent atmosphere.
In June, the corner of Ocean and Wilkinson avenues was renamed Michael James Taylor Drive. In July, his family held a candlelight vigil on Wilkinson Avenue to remember him.
His death also opened his sister's eyes to gang activity going around her.
"I never thought that gangs like the Bloods and Crips were operating in Jersey City, but now I'm more aware," said Taylor Thomas, an employee of the Jersey City school system.
She recalled seeing a first grader in the school where she worked and who boasted that he was a "thug" and belonged to a gang.
Other gangs seeping in
According to Sgt. Stith, the Bloods are usually identified by wearing the color red, either on bandannas or rags wrapped around their head. Also, they can be identified by tattoos with the image of dog paws.
They are based in the Greenville section of Jersey City as well as some parts of the Heights section of the city.
Other organized gangs that operate in Jersey City include the Crips, the Latin Kings, and MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, a street gang with roots in El Salvador. The FBI has set up a task force nationwide to monitor MS-13 due to their growing presence in the U.S.
Their activity is usually the sale of cocaine and heroin, with violence confined primarily to gang members attacking other gang members.
Under the radar
Stith, a police officer for 16 years with the last two devoted to dealing with gangs, said that despite the increasing presence of organized gangs, some are trying to become less known. "After that particular case in May [the Sex Money Murder indictment], Bloods members are afraid of wearing their colors because they don't want to be caught," said Stith.
But Stith said that law enforcement can still spot gang members even if they do not want to be spotted.
"When we go out, the first things we look for when we do an investigation are self-admission, gang tattoos or gang paraphernalia, and three or more known members associating with one another," said Stith.
He also said that the county maintains a database of all known gangs and their members that exist within its borders, and is also privy to gang-related intelligence that is shared between law enforcement from the county's municipalities.
'Knockout': Are imitation gangs running amok?
You hear from residents that there are gangs running amok. They see young men wearing white T-shirts and baggy blue jean shorts walking in a group of 10 to 15 strong.
Then they hear the news afterwards that these young men beat up on unsuspecting victims just for kicks in a game called "knockout."
This was the unfortunate fate in July of two patrons of the Mojo Lounge, a bar located on the corner of West Side and Armstrong avenues. According to Michael Beck, co-owner of the Mojo Lounge, the young men beat both patrons as they were making their way to the bar. One victim was beaten so severely that he has no memory of the incident.
15-20 'Juvenile gangs' in JC
Stith said that there are 15 to 20 juvenile gangs that exist in Jersey City, with names like R.O.C. and D-Block, which are made of people who live on the same block, the same housing complex, or same section of the city.
When asked about the assaults on West Side Avenue, Stith said that a juvenile gang may be responsible but he needed more information to make a determination.
Juvenile gangs are considered feeder programs for the more established gangs and valuable tools for larger gangs. The criteria for their value as future gang members includes the accessibility to automatic handguns. Also, they receive lighter sentences than older gang members and go through the judicial system quickly, which allows them to get right back on the streets.
Cornelius Barker, a former vice-principal at Snyder High School and himself a former Jersey City street gang member in the late 1960s and early 1970s, now meets with current gang members to help mediate disagreements and to steer younger members out of the gangs.
Barker said that young people now are more fearless and unafraid to hide their association with gangs.
"In my time, you didn't let anyone know about your gang affiliation. Even to this day, I don't always like talking about it, but I do so in order to help young people understand how serious this situation is and to help them find outlets to redirect their energies," said Barker.
Barker, now a motivational speaker with the Rutherford-based organization Vision in Motion, makes an effort to go out between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. many nights to observe how these juvenile gangs operate.
He could not go into details such as how the members go about their initiations, or how they communicate with other members without being noticed by the police, since he did not want to disclose information that would either hamper the police in their work or lead to a retaliation against him.
But he said that many of the juveniles have become more violent and commit many of the crimes that allow established gangs to lay back and watch rather than committing those crimes themselves.
"I want to speak out, even though I am making myself a target, since it pains me to see young people in my hometown going down this road," said Barker. "Many times, gangs are glorified in the media, whether in rap videos or in newspapers. And young people see that and there's this disconnect with reality."
Anyone with information or concerns about gangs in their neighborhood may contact the Jersey City Police Department Gang Unit at (201) 547-6911 and the Hudson County Prosecutors Office at (201) 915-1260.