In the late 1980s and early 90s, Fort Worth gained a reputation for having a serious gang problem. Since then, the police department has formed one of the largest dedicated gang units in the state, and they're making progress.
New crime data shows gang-related crimes dropped 24.5 percent from 2016 to 2017. Gang robberies and assaults both cut in half. NBC 5 joined the gang unit for a night on the streets with the officers making it happen.
"Last night we had a shooting," Sgt. A. Mapes told the Fort Worth Police Gang Unit during roll call. "The suspect is one of ours."
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She’s speaking to a small group of dedicated officers, before they hit the streets with a big job.
"Tonight we’re going to be looking for a possible suspect in a homicide that went out last night," said Officer Nick Maddock. "A lot of times we hear gang unit, is there a gang problem in Fort Worth?"
Right now there are 76 documented gangs in the city, including street, prison and outlaw motorcycle gangs. That adds up to a total of roughly 2,900 known gang members.
"Every time we contact these guys, that’s a chance for us to get updated information," Officer Maddock said.
The unit will saturate a neighborhood, running traffic stops and checking license plates.
"We never know when we might be looking for them for a more serious offense," Maddock said.
On this night, they get a hit, spotting a plate that links to an arrest warrant for a parole violation. The unit works together to arrest the man with no incident.
"A drug offense for manufacturing and delivery of cocaine," Officer Maddock said, explaining the man’s original offense. "Quite a lot, over 400 grams."
They don't know if he's a gang member, but they'll check for connections to see what they can learn.
"The Fort Worth-specific gang information is not written down, it’s not on TV,” Officer Maddock said. “These guys are living it every day, they know more than we do and they’re our best source of information for sure."
As the sun sets, their night's work is just getting started. They pull over a car suspected of drug trafficking, to find a jar full of marijuana and one documented gang member. He's covered in tattoos the officers know how to decode.
But it's not all arrests and intimidation. The unit works to build relationships.
"They may be the only witness to the next violent crime we have to solve," said Officer Maddock. “And if they’ve had a bad experience with us in the past that may be information that we never find out.”
The unit has a team that goes into schools, trying to prevent the next generation from joining up and working to turn others away from a life of crime.
"Unfortunately sometimes it’s all they’ve known," Officer Maddock said. "Like I tell a lot of them, if you’re fortunate enough to grow out of it, you’ve gotta take that opportunity."
Through handcuffs and heart-to-hearts, they're cutting down on gang violence, one shift at a time.
"We’re going to continue to put pressure on these guys and they’re gonna know we’re here for sure," said Officer Maddock.
The unit has also started a 'Gang 101' class to train patrol officers in how to recognize gang members. They say that has helped cut down on crime, along with a stronger relationship with the federal agencies, like the ATF. Those ties have helped the unit present stronger federal cases, putting gang leaders away for longer prison sentences.