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In the crosshairs: The gangs of Oakland County

By Stacy Gittleman

On the afternoon of March 18, 2022, seven-year-old Ariah Jackson of Pontiac had just been picked up from a school bus stop by her mother Lashawn Jackson along with three other children.

A car followed them.

Ariah exited the car outside her house when members of a local gang, the 4-Block Gang, fired bullets from a moving car, killing her with a gunshot wound to the head and wounding mom Lashawn in the head.

Two of the three alleged perpetrators, who range in age from 18 to 22, are being held in the Oakland County jail, with a preliminary examination for their trial set for May 12.

The shooter, Justin Rouser, 20, and Jajuan McDonald,18, who was in the vehicle, each face 10 charges – first-degree murder, four counts of assault with intent to murder, and five firearms offenses. The third, Daejion Bryant, 22, is out on bond and is charged with lying to police officers and accessory after the fact to a felony.

Federal investigators say the shooting likely involved retaliatory action involving members of the R Block and 4-Block gangs.

Gangs, and the associated violence, are nothing new – in one form or another they have been a danger to the American public since the founding of this country.

The most recent comprehensive studies on gangs from a national standpoint are from 2012 – the U.S. Department of Justice National Youth Gang Survey (NYGS), and the 2015 Gang Report from the National Gang Intelligence Center, in collaboration with the FBI and other intelligence agencies.

According to the 2012 report, there are 30,000 gangs in the United States – a 15 percent increase since 2006. In larger cities in 2012, the number of gangs increased by eight percent and the number of gang members increased by 11 percent. The data suggests that gang activity has become more concentrated in urban areas. Concurrently, the prevalence rate of gang activity among smaller cities declined to its lowest rate in more than a decade in 2012. Together, these findings strongly indicate the growing concentration of gang activity in largely populated areas and provide empirical evidence that the spread of gang activity outward from larger cities is limited in size and scope.

In terms of gang-related crime, law enforcement agencies report that they do not regularly record offenses as "gang-related," apart from homicides. According to the National Youth Gang Survey, in the United States, there were 2,363 gang-related homicides in 2012. The FBI data shows that of the approximately 15,500 homicides annually across the U.S., around 2,000 are gang-related homicides, as reported to the National Youth Gang Survey.

In the 2012 survey, it was reported that gang leaders exploit youth to sell drugs, and nine percent of students in middle school and high school reported a gang presence in their school.

According to the 2015 report, gangs have become increasingly sophisticated and well organized; all use violence and intimidation to control neighborhoods and boost their illegal money-making activities, which include robbery, drug and gun trafficking, prostitution and human trafficking, and fraud. Many gang members continue to commit crimes even after being sent to jail.

In Oakland County, according to data, the bulk of gang violence occurs in Pontiac. Pontiac is a city with a population of just over 62,000, with 34 percent living at or below the poverty rate, and which bears the heaviest concentration of gang-related homicides for the county. It also sits just north of its shared border with Bloomfield Township.

Here are just a few examples from the past decade:

In June 2008, a member of the Pontiac-based Goon Squad gang was charged with shooting a teenager from Alabama after crashing a party in a community center in Pontiac. The shooter was tried in Oakland County Circuit Court, pleading no contest to second-degree murder and a felony firearm charge. According to a sentencing agreement in late 2009, he received 17 to 35 years in prison on the murder charge and two years on the firearm charge.

In July 2008, a botched drug deal in Pontiac resulted in the shooting death of a 29-year-old man. A jury found an alleged member of the Goon Squad guilty of first-degree felony murder and multiple other charges for killing the man and severely wounding one of his friends, as well as for shooting and robbing two other men in a separate incident earlier that day. At the time of the conviction, the felon denied any gang involvement.

After a violent 2008, the FBI in January 2009 formed the Oakland County Violent Gang Task Force (OCVGTF) and collaborated with police departments from Pontiac, Waterford Township, Auburn Hills, and Bloomfield Township, as well as the Michigan State Police, state Department of Corrections and Oakland County Sheriff's Office, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and other federal agencies. As a result of their combined efforts, arrests of gang members picked up.

In November 2010, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced that 74 members of two local gangs operating in Pontiac, Michigan, were charged in two separate complaints with conspiracy to distribute marijuana and cocaine,

The complaints charge that various members and associates of the New World Order and Almighty Latin King Nation gangs conspired to distribute marijuana and cocaine in and around the Pontiac area, from 2009 through the present. Gang members who were charged did not just come from Pontiac but also Clarkston, Waterford and Auburn Hills.

Detroit FBI officials reported that the task force seized $9,900 in cash, 15 guns, including three assault rifles, three other long guns, three shotguns, and six handguns; 10 pounds of marijuana; 200 pills; between 50 and 100 cell phones, and cocaine.

In 2012, members of the Pontiac-based Goon Squad were suspected of being connected to a December 2011 shooting in the early morning hours when gunfire was sprayed inside the Rolladium rollerblading facility in neighboring Waterford Township.

Twelve members of two gangs – Hustle Boys and the Wall Street Gorillaz – were charged in 2017 with distribution of heroin mixed with fetanyl from a joint gang operation called TEAM that operated from two houses in Pontiac. The drugs were spread over Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Livingston counties and those charged came from Pontiac, Waterford, Commerce and Keego Harbor.

In 2011, the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office took over Pontiac’s policing patrols and turned the Pontiac police station into a sheriff's substation. The city saw its 911 response times reduced from 80 minutes to six minutes. Violent crime rates declined by 25 percent and the sheriff’s office case closure rate is now between 80 and 90 percent.

Still, a decade later gang-related violent crime continues, and reached a crescendo pace in the years between 2020 and 2022. The Oakland County Sheriff's Office reported 37 homicides in the county in 2022, and 35 homicide cases in 2021. In 2022, Pontiac had 14 of the 37 homicides.

Among those who were murdered: Frederick Lamar Betty, 39, was killed October 31, 2021, by gunshot outside a Pontiac food market, and a 48-year-old Pontiac man was also shot, sustaining a bullet wound to the foot. The murder suspect evaded law enforcement for more than a year and was arrested in December 2022, and is now charged with first-degree murder and assault with intent to commit murder in Oakland County Circuit Court for a possible trial.

On November 5, 2021, Stefon Crow, 23, and his friend, Kyle Milton, 30, were killed by gunfire. Authorities identified the suspected shooter as convicted felon Torris Neal Green, 27, of Pontiac, who is currently on trial in Oakland County Court for the murders.

On November 8, 2021, Alneta “Needo” Cooks, 56, was killed when someone opened fire on the car she was riding. The shooter is still at large.

Tracy Morris, public information officer for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives Detroit Field Division (ATF), said based on anecdotal evidence and numbers of violent crime incidents such as the ones listed above, gang violence in Oakland County was mainly based in Pontiac and peaked in 2021, but was quickly quelled by the formation of an additional partnership between ATF and the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office’s Pontiac Gun Violence Task Force (GVTF).

Although gang activity comes to mind for cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, Morris said organized criminals are always trying to expand their reach of influence, and that includes smaller cities like Pontiac.

"There are national gangs trying to infiltrate every inner city in America, including Bloods, Crips, Gangster's Disciples," Morris said. "Specifically, national gangs will try to take over local gangs and get them to join the nationally affiliated gang. The major local street gangs in Pontiac are R-Block and 4 Block, including their affiliated offshoots. R-Block is a blood-based gang that has been heavily influenced by national Bloods recently."

Morris said most gang violence and activity coming from Pontiac tends to occur between rivals and is fueled by social media interactions.

“Due to the smaller size of Pontiac, as opposed to say Detroit, it is much more likely rival gang members who will run into each other in public places, potentially putting the public at risk,” Morris said.

Morris said the most common crimes gang members will commit are unlawful possession and use of firearms, generally used during drive-by shootings.

"Most of the time the victims are family members of gang members who happen to live with a gang member. There are several examples of this, most notably the drive-by fatal shooting of seven-year-old (Ariah) Jackson. Though the shooters did not know any members of Jackson's family, the motive of the shooting was gang-related, according to court filings."

To solve such cases of gang-related violence, Morris said the ATF utilizes crime gun intelligence, including ballistic crime scene evidence, the tracing of firearms, and human intelligence, both from the deployment of “boots on the ground” local law enforcement officials and individuals in the community to target gang-related "trigger pullers" who are causing violence in the community.

“ATF and the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office work hand-in-hand daily within the Gun Violence Task Force to investigate shootings and interdict those trigger pullers by any legal means necessary,” said Morris. “When it comes to gang violence, the name of the game is interdiction. By removing the trigger puller from the streets, the cycle of gang violence – both offensive and retaliatory shootings – is disrupted, and the community gets a reprieve from the violence. This allows the GVTF to reapproach victims who may have otherwise been too afraid to cooperate with law enforcement during the time when the trigger puller was free, out on the street.”

According to Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, gang violence differs from mass shootings and threats to schools that spiked in the fall of 2021.

“Gang violence is typically not linked to schools but instead is retaliatory in nature,” said Bouchard. “Oftentimes, it is linked to defending turf between two groups and innocent victims getting hurt in the crossfire. Typically, where we see gang violence, like in Pontiac, there has been a spike of shootings and homicides between two gangs. Oftentimes, instead of cooperating with us (to report a crime), they make the decision to go back against the gang that was shooting at their members.”

While the Oakland County Sheriff’s office tallies accounts of crime on its interactive crime mapping website, it does not directly correlate any given incident of crime with gang activity. For that information, Bouchard said he keeps those numbers for operational purposes.

Bouchard said his office is working closely with the ATF, which is focused on illegal firearm activity and gun violence connected to gangs. When Bouchard’s office notices patterns of crime, they work to develop cases against small, focused groups of individuals.

Overall, Bouchard said using this methodology, since October 2021, his office along with the ATF have charged 76 local people with gang-related crimes. Fourteen of those charged were charged with murder or intent to commit murder.

“This is a small number of people committing a large amount of the violent activity. An analysis from these arrests showed that there was a 34 percent decrease in assaults from 2021 to 2022 because we targeted this small focus of certain individuals. Also, in 2020, we removed 289 firearms off the streets. Compared to a decade ago, violent crime in Pontiac has been reduced by 40 percent,” Bouchard said.

Working within the gang task force, the FBI field office in Detroit takes gang-related crime very seriously, said FBI Public Affairs Officer Mara R. Schneider for the FBI Detroit Field Office. “While gang activity is still present within Oakland and Wayne County, specifically in Detroit, there has been a gradual shift away from traditional criminal gang activity.”

According to the FBI, victims of gang crime fall under several categories. Primarily, violent crimes such as shootings and stabbings take the lives of the most victims. The second tier of a gang’s victims are those who may overdose on narcotics dealt by a gang. The overdose death of one person ripples out into a closely knit community of family and neighbors and then into outlying areas to those who live very differently from where the clusters of gang members may live. It is also possible that communities not directly impacted by gang violence may be incidentally impacted by the violent crime that can surround the gang's activity.

Schneider said FBI investigations still maintain a focus on narcotics and violence derived from gang disputes. However, there has been a general uptick in gang members taking part in financial fraud, where they can gain as much, if not more money, by conducting these activities than they could through traditional means. By operating in this more subversive manner, it can keep them under the radar from law enforcement.

For example, one such case from 2021 involved Damon Long, 25, of Detroit, a member of the Detroit-based Glock Boyz TMC (too much money) street gang. In 2021, court records show the gang perpetrated acts of violence against rival gangs and have been victims of such violence. Court records tie Long to these violent attacks and to being the target of rival gangs.

In May 2021, the FBI executed a search warrant at Long’s residence in Detroit and seized two of Long’s loaded pistols. Agents also seized evidence that Long engaged in wire fraud by submitting false applications for federal unemployment insurance benefits using stolen identities totaling over $300,000. Long used the identities and Social Security numbers of at least 10 individuals in perpetuating his scheme. Long boasted about his fraud schemes on social media, and his membership in the street gang was also revealed on his social media accounts.

In 2022, Long was sentenced to 60 months in prison after being convicted of aggravated identity theft, wire fraud, and illegally possessing firearms, and was also ordered to pay restitution of $300,000.

Schneider said solving this case is largely due in part to the work of Project Safe Neighborhoods, a program bringing together all levels of law enforcement and the communities they serve to reduce violent crime and gun violence to create safer neighborhoods.

Unlike some larger cities in the United States with a large presence of national-level gangs, such as the Bloods, Crips, MS-13, gangs in Detroit and southeast Michigan tend to be neighborhood-based. Gang members can be a circle of friends who have grown up together and sometimes gangs are multigenerational. In some instances, members of the older generation, some who have served prison time, recruit the next generation into gang life. While some gangs within southeast Michigan do associate themselves as either Bloods or Crips, most intra-gang disputes arise from territorial disputes with members of other gangs. Many of the incidents include acts of revenge by one gang member who felt disrespected or had acts of violence put upon them by the first gang, said Schneider.

"Incidents of direct victims of this violence are often reported in the media and sadly, victims are gunned down, severely wounded in drive-by shootings or during drug deals within the neighborhoods where gang members reside, as in the case with seven-year-old Jackson," she added.

But outside the accounts of violence between gang members and the unfortunate bystanders who get caught in the crossfire of the violence, the FBI says that there are few investigations and not enough data to indicate that gang activity has an immediate effect on the community out large.

“Our primary concern is to hinder violence among competing gangs, limiting injuries to innocent bystanders,” Schneider said. “Although most of the gang violence does stay confined between gangs, their activity does affect communities in other ways – as gangs do participate in selling drugs, conducting carjackings, and trafficking of weapons. Our goal is to mitigate the threat to the community by disrupting gang activity and dismantling gangs in Michigan.”

If you monitor your neighborhood police scanner, follow posts on the hyper-localized, or tune into local media, you are aware that the suburbs of metro Detroit in and around Oakland County are not immune to crime. There will be rumblings about a rash of home burglaries and car thefts and even accounts of assault.

But do gang members commit the bulk of the crimes in the suburbs? Experts interviewed for this article, including chiefs from individual police departments and Oakland County Prosecuting Attorney Karen McDonald concluded that there is not enough data to directly link crime incidents to gangs.

This theory has been held since 2015, when the FBI in its gang study concluded that the majority of gang activity is happening in the nation’s denser population centers and is not seeping into the suburbs.

In this regard, FBI’s Schneider explained that other than the sale of narcotics, gang violence generally does not spill over into areas that are not already rife with gang activity. However, those who reside in active gang areas are at risk for violent victimization.

“The biggest type of crime and victimization we see spill from the cities into the suburbs would be narcotics,” said Schneider. “Drugs appear to be sourced from Detroit and then sold just across 8 Mile or other areas where there already may be a gang presence.”

Another category of crime where gang involvement becomes murky is vehicle theft.

In February 2023, Bloomfield Township Police charged three men with motor vehicle theft, larceny of personal property from a vehicle, burglary, illegal use of a credit card, and larceny of a firearm. The men were connected to hundreds of thefts and crimes that go back into October 2022.

Even with these car thefts, Bloomfield Township Chief of Police James Gallagher said there are no clear-cut records of gang-related crime that he is aware of. Often, Gallagher said, his enforcement staff is unaware that a suspect is connected to an organized gang unless they admit it after an arrest.

“It’s hard to say if there has been a spike in gang-related crime in Bloomfield Township because we don't necessarily know whether somebody is truly involved in a gang,” said Gallagher. “Do we have speculation at times? Yeah, of course. But we don't necessarily know at the time of the arrest unless they confess, or if the information we get when we run the names through our intelligence analysts whether or not they are truly a gang member.”

Gallagher said in popular culture, there are notorious gangs such as the Bloods, the Crips, or Vice Lords. In Oakland County, there may be a loosely affiliated network of smaller gangs connected to these larger ones. But as far as crimes in Bloomfield Township, he cannot say with certainty that any have been gang-related.

“It’s often hard to piece the puzzle together, unless sometimes you can arrest a few people, and one of the suspects will testify that another suspect is a member of a gang,” he explained.

Madison Heights Police Lieutenant Kevin Barrett also cannot pinpoint any crime wave or spike of incidents directly to affiliated gangs. In the town with a population of over 28,000, Barrett said there is no evidence of gang activity in terms of graffiti tags or suspicious individuals wearing a certain dress that would give way to gang involvement.

"At times, we suspect that some organized crime, like armed robbery or larceny may be gang-related," admitted Barrett. "But we do not have hard proof that gangs are openly operating in Madison Heights. We just don't have the data to support it to be able to say with any kind of certainty.”

Though many individual police departments in the area have an officer assigned to the anti-gang task force through Oakland County, most are reluctant or cannot confirm as an officer of that department that there has been documented gang activity within a certain municipality.

Troy Police Sergeant Jason Clark said there is much value to having a member of the municipality’s police serve on the task force, including solving crimes when the perpetrator crosses county or state lines.

“The biggest asset to having a Troy officer assigned to the FBI-Oakland County Violent Gang Crime Task Force is the availability of federal resources and additional workforce when needed," Clark said. "Our police department only has so many officers and investigators working in our city, who are responding to everyday calls and carry a daily caseload. When a criminal incident requires the attention of most of our personnel, we lean on our multi-jurisdictional cooperation agreements for additional resources and the exchange of information.”

Clark said an example of this teamwork was during an investigation after a string of bank robberies that took place in the fall of 2022. After robbing several banks in Troy, Royal Oak and Berkley, a Troy resident purchased a one-way plane ticket from Detroit to Las Vegas. Law enforcement and investigation officials worked across municipal and state lines to identify the alleged robber, who was arrested as he deplaned in Las Vegas, and was back in the custody of Troy Police Department by October 20, 2022. He is awaiting trial in the Oakland County Jail on a $2 million bond.

Michigan law enforcement intelligence professional Jason Marquardt is president of the Michigan chapter of the Gang Intelligence Association (MGIA). Its focus of late has been on Michigan’s prison gangs and outlawed motorcycle gangs, which are some of the notoriously worst in the world, according to Marquardt.

“That’s not to say that street gangs are less active,” said Marquardt. “In fact, they are more active than they have been in the past. Unfortunately, MGIA does not have the statistics to back that up, and therein lies the problem. Michigan is a bit behind where other states are in terms of collecting data on gangs, and this was the impetus for reactivating our chapter here in Michigan.”

The group reactivated its work this March with a conference in Lansing to educate law enforcement and intelligence professionals on all aspects of gangs but with a special focus on hybrid gangs.

“The training we want to provide involves not only education but how to properly build networks across agencies to better share intelligence,” said Marquardt. “The situation in Oakland County is not like that of Chicago or Los Angeles, which have areas of their cities infiltrated by larger, well-known gangs such as the Bloods and the Crips. What we have here is what we call a hybrid gang: small, neighborhood-based gangs that are disconnected from larger gangs. They are less organized and do not seem to have any internal ranking structure. That's what makes them maybe a little bit more dangerous than larger, organized gangs because in many cases, they are teenagers or young adults trying to build street cred through turf wars.”

It is Marquardt’s goal to have more connected intelligence among law enforcement officials in southeast Michigan and to emulate the data gathering of larger cities such as Los Angeles or Chicago which do have larger gang problems. This will not completely eradicate the presence of gangs here, but putting more gang-related criminals behind bars will make a difference, he added.

As her office continues to work in collaboration with the ATF, the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI, law enforcement, behavioral and mental health experts as part of the Anti-Gun Violence Commission she established in 2022, Oakland County Prosecuting Attorney Karen McDonald said there has been a significant decrease in gun violence in Pontiac. While the commission does not specifically target gangs, she said it does focus on who are the main drivers of gun violence.

“Gun violence related to gangs is entirely different than targeted violence (that we have seen in shootings at Oxford High School, for example),” she explained. “While we don’t address gangs or individuals who belong to gangs, we target the guns – where they're coming from, and what are the drivers of an individual's involvement in gang violence.”

McDonald continued: “I do want to stress, that when we talk about organized car theft or other acts of theft, that is not the focus of our task force. Rather, our focus on gangs within Pontiac is working with law enforcement and having a prosecutor embedded with this group which has led to significant progress.”

McDonald said what is most important in curbing violent crime and crime related to gangs, though, happens much further “upstream” than the apprehensions, arrests and prosecutions.

"We can target the offenders all we want. We can narrow our focus on the drivers of violence and crime, but that is not the only thing we need to do," said McDonald. "We need a comprehensive approach. That's why the commission is working to address how do we prevent kids from ending up at a point of crisis where they feel they need to affiliate with a gang, or they need to pick up a gun and commit an act of violence. That's just as important as prosecution, conviction, tighter gun laws, or other hardened measures we can use to keep our residents safe every day.”

McDonald attributes some recent success in reducing gun violence to tightening coordination and better use of intelligence between her office and county and federal officials, and the ability to have boots on the streets of Pontiac. But she cautioned there is still much work to do.

“There are more guns on the streets now than there has ever been,” McDonald warned.

The county’s top prosecutor had just attended meetings with gun violence experts from across the nation, who this summer will publish a comprehensive report of preventative evidence-based protocols on how to better identify and prevent youth who may be in a crisis from turning to guns, crime, and violence. This summer the commission will also publish findings and recommended models and programs that have been proven effective to reduce gang violence in other cities.

“Gun violence is the leading cause of death for children in this country,” she said. “But most targeted gun violence takes place outside of school, such as at workplace settings or intentional violence as seen in Pontiac.

“The way to address violence upstream is to provide opportunities and alternatives to gang affiliation in the neighborhoods where these kids live. The proven strategies engage people in the community, from faith leaders, and educators, to family members and neighbors, who know the people of their city and can reach the youth that may be headed in the wrong direction towards violence," said McDonald.

Echoing McDonald’s view on the need for putting more preventative measures in place, Bouchard said the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office’s Pontiac Gun Violence Task Force addresses gangs with a twofold approach. First, it develops an understanding of why people may join gangs in the first place, and then, what can systemically be strengthened and put in place for vulnerable youth.

"Preventing youth from joining gangs depends on a strong family structure, connection to a faith community, and providing alternatives," said Bouchard. "At the front end, we have been proactive with outreach programs that meet the social needs of youth. It may not look like policing, but it is a way to connect with the community and provide better pathways for the future. When it comes to violence, you have to get in front of it and tend to it: who are the ones who join gangs? How do you give them a better path?”

Lauren Fuller is the executive director of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Police Athletic League (PAL). Founded by Bouchard in 2015, the Oakland County Sheriff's Police Athletic League (PAL) Program is a nonprofit organization in collaboration between the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office and a group of diverse community partners that picked up the operations of the former Pontiac Police Athletic League. It was established to create a safe environment where law enforcement and community partners work with city youth ages 4-17 through athletic, mentoring and enrichment programs at no cost to involved families. According to Fuller, PAL has filled a void in the lack of available after-school enrichment programs in the city.

"Our program is here as a unique blend of sports and recreation and mentoring. These elements are the vehicle for youth to build positive and trusting relationships with caring adults and give kids the opportunity to make friends and interact with law enforcement in a more positive way," she said.

The alternative, Fuller said, is to have that first encounter with law enforcement when they get into trouble later as adolescents or adults, such as when they are caught speeding, shoplifting, or worse.

According to a 2019 report from the Council for a Strong America, 27 percent of juvenile crimes occur between the hours of 2 to 6 p.m., when parents are at work and kids are left on their own at home after school. Seventy-four percent of parents surveyed agree that after school programs help to give parents peace of mind about their children and 62 percent agree that after school programs help to keep kids safe and out of trouble.

But programs such as the Sherriff’s PAL are few and far between. According to 2019 statistics from the Michigan After School Alliance, there are 625,026 children in the state waiting to get into an after-school program – that's four kids waiting for every one who is enrolled in a program.

Fuller said PAL is a much-needed community resource that creates a community policing model driven by positive relationships with a focus on prevention and safety. The families who come through the door have diverse sets of home situations. If children coming to PAL need additional behavioral resources, Fuller said PAL is in touch with other organizations such as Children’s Village and other social service organizations.

As kids play and are coached in sports – sometimes by law enforcement officials – they also get mentoring advice on making good decisions and how to stand up to peer pressure to avoid bad ones.

Automotive worker Hakim Harris, 46, sees the dire need for more community centers and more opportunities for youth on a daily basis as a community activist. He spent his earlier years involved with gangs in Pontiac, the only city he’s ever called home. He said he spent his share of time selling guns and narcotics on the street in a local gang. But then, in 2009, at age 32, he was caught up in a sweep for selling guns and narcotics.

Though he was not convicted, Harris said “by the grace of God,” that event was the turning point in his life when he decided to walk away from guns, drugs and gang life.

“I was born and raised here in Pontiac, and I was from that street life,” said Harris. “God (and my pastor) changed my life around about 15 years ago and since then, I have wanted to give back to the community.”

In 2016, Harris founded the grassroots organization Pontiac Universal Crimes, which has a global Facebook following of over 20,000 people. Harris said he started the organization to help the mothers who lost their sons to gun violence find resources and clues to locate those who committed the killings by providing a safe anonymous place to call in a tip on an unsolved homicide that gets collected and filed with the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, all to break the “no snitch” culture. When crime and violence strike, Pontiac Universal Crimes is a networking tool for the community to collect funds to support grieving families, such as paying for funeral expenses, including the family of Ariah Jackson.

Now, Harris said Pontiac Universal is looking to raise the capital to secure a building space for a community center where at-risk youth can be put in touch with counseling and other resources to prevent them from being recruited into gangs and committing violent crimes.

Harris said those who are involved in gangs maintain a very localized presence and mostly stick to their side of town. If gang members do venture into the suburbs, as he did, it was to deal drugs.

"The reason gang members may go out into places like Bloomfield Hills is because they are selling drugs to people who have money," said Harris. "Do they bring car and home break-ins to these communities? Not really. That's because, frankly, in these wealthier communities, law enforcement is not going to turn a blind eye, and they are more likely to get caught than if they would be involved in break-in crimes in lower-income communities."

Harris said in recent years since the launch of Pontiac Universal Crimes, along with the establishment of several anti-gun violence task forces in the county, he has seen greater coordination in investigations, solving crimes and arrests. But much preventative work remains to be done.

“(Pontiac Mayor Tim Greimel) is on the right track now, and he is doing a lot of positive things in getting our young kids off the streets. The PAL is helping too,” said Harris. “But at the same time, there is so much more that we need. Our kids need physical spaces like community centers where kids can go after school and meet positive role models. We have lost so many of them, like our Boys and Girls clubs, because they’ve shut down over the years. Then what plays out is when a young person has nothing to do, they have time to think about doing bad things. There are a lot of at-risk kids out there that too often get overlooked. We need to get them help before they get to the age where they can get involved with the serious crimes of picking up guns and selling drugs."


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