The Lawrence Bus Co. is offering free transportation to and from the "Gangs in Lawrence
Det. Mike McAtee and Officer Darren Othick are not always regarded with affection among Lawrence gang members.
The youngsters who roam the streets of Lawrence have given them nicknames. One is unprintable.
Since June, McAtee and Othick have been entrenched in the Lawrence Police Department's new special investigations unit, a component of which targets area gang activity. They are a resource for other patrol officers and detectives, and they have been busy.
"In the last couple of years we've seen the greatest increase in gang activity," McAtee said.
"We're following the national trend," Othick said. "We don't want Lawrence to end up like Topeka, Kansas City, even Ottawa."
As part of the ongoing effort to quell that trend, law enforcement officials, school administrators and other area leaders have organized a three-hour "Gangs in Lawrence: A Call to Action" presentation for Wednesday afternoon and again for Wednesday evening.
To increase awareness, the program will examine all facets of gang activity: crime, styles of dress, hand signals, general behavior, parental response and others.
Police are hoping residents will become more and more proactive.
"Call the school, call the police department," McAtee said. "At least call somebody -- there are a lot of resources (in Lawrence)."
Often the two can be found on the street, wearing black mesh jerseys with POLICE emblazoned in yellow on their backs. They talk to worried parents and their children, many of whom are walking a tightrope above peer influence and gangs.
"Those are the ones we can help, the ones who are on the edge," McAtee said.
Concerned parents should watch for warning signs, Othick and McAtee said.
A youngster may practice hand signals while on the phone, or label possessions with strange names. Friends may not even trade real names, and children don't always want parents to know who those friends are.
"The second your son or daughter doesn't want you to know who their hanging out with, that's when you should start to worry," McAtee said. "Know who your kids are with."
The issue of gangs in Lawrence is riddled with stereotypes, and part of the unit's battle is against those. McAtee and Othick have talked to youths in all corners of the city, no matter their race, background or their neighborhood's economic status.
Gang member numbers locally are difficult to estimate, they said, but gang members are no less dangerous here than in Topeka or Kansas City.
"The biggest misconception in this town is that our gang members aren't real gang members, that the only time bad stuff happens is when kids come up from Topeka," McAtee said.
Lawrence youths carry guns. Many get arrested.
"The purpose of a gang is intimidation and to commit crime," McAtee said.
When gang activity becomes criminal activity -- assaults, burglaries, car thefts, armed robberies or a host of other crimes -- police are better equipped to find the perpetrators when they know who they're dealing with.
The conversations McAtee and Othick have with concerned parents and teens are preemptive strikes.
"I would much rather come to a house and talk to a kid," McAtee said. "By the time we get involved (in an arrest), it's too late."
"We don't want to lose our youth to this," Othick said.
Sponsors of Wednesday's presentation include the City of Lawrence, area Chamber of Commerce, Ecumenical Fellowship, Koch Crime Commission, Lawrence Alliance, The Lawrence Journal-World, Lawrence Ministerial Alliance, Lawrence Police Department, Lawrence Public Schools, Mayor's Youth Advisory Council, Project Freedom, Project Phoenix, Douglas County Sheriff's Department, Sunflower Cablevision and KLWN-KLZR Radio.