The lines are blurring in gangland.
Once upon a time, Bloods and Crips squared off in battles over turf or women or in retaliation for something their rivals had done.
If somebody would go out and go renegade, there would be repercussions for that within the gang, said Lt. Scott Heimerman, who heads the Wichita Police Departments gang and felony assault unit.
But increasingly, police officials say, rival gang members are joining forces for one reason or another, and blood isnt being shed in punishment.
Authorities have even coined a term for the phenomenon: hybrid gangs.
Groups that police thought were allies are fighting each other, and gang members that tradition says should clash with each other are instead working together.
Its very strange, Heimerman said.
How connections form
The new connections may be driven by the fact that the gang members all live on the same street, went to the same high school or have some other tie linking them.
Most of the time, people choose to belong to the gang that predominates in their neighborhood, said David Gilkey, a gang prevention specialist with the Urban League of Kansas. If other family members happen to live in different neighborhoods, for example, two cousins may become members of opposing gangs.
A collaboration between rival gangs is also more likely in a smaller city such as Wichita than in big gang areas such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, Gilkey said. In bigger cities, gangs have controls over entire neighborhoods, whereas in Wichita the boundaries are more flexible.
Hybrids will form to accomplish a task, then disband, Detective Chad Beard said. Theyre out doing their own thing.
It may be to pull off a series of robberies or other crimes, he said. Or it may be for something as harmless as going to a movie.
The new unions are commonly short-term. Keeping up with the shifting alliances is challenging for the gang unit, Heimerman said, but its important work.
It would be a miracle to see rival gangs come together and put down the guns and the drugs and say Hey, lets clean up our community, Gilkey said. That would be wonderful, but we got to keep it real.
More than once recently, gang leaders have assumed an act of violence was committed by a rival gang only for it to have come from a subset within their own group.
You have to sit down (with them) and say, Dont start a gang war. This was some of your own people that did this, Heimerman said.
Law enforcement has to be alert to sort out whos responsible for a killing or other violence so you dont end up with something escalating, he said.
A natural evolution
The hybrid gangs were the topic of a session at the Midwest Law Enforcement Conference on Gangs and Drugs last month in Wichita.
Hybrid gangs have actually been active for more than a decade, research shows. Theyre just becoming more common.
Heimerman said he considers the emergence of hybrid gangs a natural evolution of the social structure.
Just as the gangs are evolving, we have to learn and do the same, he said. If were not on the forefront, and paying attention to these changes, we end up back with what we had in the late 1980s or early 90s.
When gang crime first erupted in Wichita more than 20 years ago, the result was an explosion of drive-by shootings more than 300 a year at one point in the 1990s and homicide totals more than double what authorities have routinely seen in recent years.
We were way behind the curve, Heimerman said. We didnt pay enough attention to it.
There are an estimated 3,000 gang members in Wichita, police officials say though that number includes fringe members and those incarcerated. Four gang intelligence officers work the streets every night to keep up with whats going on.
Thats where youre going to hear this stuff, Heimerman said.
But information from alert residents is important, too.
The community being aware being our eyes and ears for us is key, because we cant be everywhere, Beard said. We need their help. We want their help.