A Lawrence junior high school auditorium overflowed Wednesday afternoon and evening with residents concerned about local gang activity.
Demonstrating the collective anxiety of a city that fears a coming war, more than 1,000 area residents filed into Southwest Junior High School auditorium Wednesday, clamoring for answers.
During afternoon and evening presentations, local leaders in the day-to-day fight against gangs in Lawrence cautioned and educated audience members about the effects of gang activity and how they can be slowed.
Spotlighted in the program -- "Gangs in Lawrence: A Call to Action" -- were new police initiatives and the experiences of a former Wichita gang member.
"Knowledge is the first line of defense in any problem," said Jerry Wells, former district attorney and representative of the state's Koch Crime Commission. "Our goal is not only to inform the public but to become a model community in this fight in the state of Kansas."
Several recent shooting incidents, and more than seven years of gang activity in Lawrence, spurred Wednesday's forums, which Wells said would not be the last.
Lawrence Police Chief Ron Olin said police have identified 24 gangs in the Lawrence area and estimated there are 150 active members of those gangs. The memberships cross social, economic and racial backgrounds. According to Olin, a gang consists of three or more members who engage in criminal activity.
Olin said that the mid-August shooting death of a Topeka man was gang-related and that 95 percent of the investigation was done in Topeka. Leads also were followed in Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and Detroit, he said.
The problem is real, he said, and gang members' attitudes are grim.
"They really don't believe they will be alive tomorrow," Olin said.
As part of the fight, Olin announced three new police programs aimed at stemming gang activity: a letter campaign to parents of at-risk youth, an anti-truancy program and a Gun Stoppers program to take illegal guns off the streets.
District Judge Jean Shepherd said that power and money are key draws for those who want to join gangs and that violence is a common bond.
Shepherd advised parents to be aware of their children's friends and suspicious activity. If a child comes home battered and bruised, for example, he or she may have been "jumped in" a gang.
Shepherd said girls are as involved with gangs as boys. Girl gangs exist, but most connect and submit to a male group.
"The girls are there to be used and abused -- nothing good ever happens to them," Shepherd said.
She encouraged parents to stay actively involved with their children.
Clem Clayburn, principal of East Heights School, said gang members are not created in a vacuum. Family abuse, a need for belonging, and a need for a family unit all contribute to future gang membership.
"Students don't become gang members overnight," Clayburn said.
Keeping students active and busy between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. -- considered high risk hours for youth criminal activity -- is essential to keeping them out of trouble.
Shamon Dixon, a Lawrence High sophomore and a former Wichita gang member, told audience members that he walked the streets in fear and that he watched several friends die in gang crossfire.
"It was horrible," said Dixon, who was involved in a car-theft gang at 13.
Many who join gangs don't realize what they are getting into, he said.
"It sounds cool, but it's not really cool," Dixon said.
He said he feels fortunate to have made it out alive.
"It's a better life (in Lawrence)," Dixon said. "I can really depend on myself."
Audience members said Wednesday's presentation was indicative of the community's need for answers.
"I think everybody feels that way -- 'what do I do?'" Alison Carter said.
Some said they were encouraged by simply looking around.
"The turnout is probably the best part of it," Sue Morgan said of the crowd that spilled out into the hall. "That's a good sign that people are willing to get involved."
Kristin Stoneking, pastor at Centenary United Methodist Church, said she hoped to remind concerned citizens that there is a deeper, spiritual component to gang issues.
"When people are involved in a faith community, they can't help but think about the future," Stoneking said. "No society in the world can exist without that piece of the fabric."
Although a specific head count was not taken, "well over 1,000" people attended, Wells said. An additional unknown number also listened on local radio stations or watched on Sunflower Cablevision, which broadcast the forums live.
Information packets were distributed at the meeting, but not enough for the entire larger-than-expected crowd. Anyone interested in obtaining a packet should contact Vicki Cummiskey, the city's communications coordinator, at 832-3406.