Gang cops leaving the streets behind
• As two longtime officers retire, police hope to hold on to hard-won gang knowledge
For a quarter century, Portland police officer Dave Barrios has been a guardian angel to thousands of youths who might have otherwise ended up dead or locked up for life.
Barrios, a member of the gang enforcement team, is so beloved in inner Northeast Portland that as he patrols his district with his window rolled down, he either waves, nods or calls out to people by name, and everyone responds with the same greeting: 'Barrios!'
The 58-year-old Barrios, known for his trademark braided ponytail, will leave behind a legacy when he retires from the force May 30 to work with Native American youths.
Sgt. Neil Crannell, perhaps the city's most knowledgeable source on the 15-year history and culture of gangs in Portland, also is retiring at the end of the month after a 27-year police career.
As the supervisor of the gang enforcement team, Crannell reviews every gang-related incident in the city and is constantly trying to piece together parts of the puzzle in gang-related killings Ñ typically more challenging to prosecute because of unwilling witnesses.
Police and community members say the officers' retirements will be a tremendous loss to the city Ñ especially the population of at-risk young people they serve.
'It's going to have an impact,' says Cmdr. Dave Benson, who works closely with both as head of the tactical operations division. 'It's a big change for us.'
Barrios and Crannell received long standing ovations at a recent meeting of Mayor Vera Katz's antigang forum, where Katz commended them for their service.
'Neil,' Katz said to Crannell, who opens each meeting with a brief rundown of every gang-related incident, trying to link those that may be related, 'I ask you to connect the dots, and I think when you retire, you're going to be thinking about how you can connect the dots.'
Both say they would stay on the job longer, but they're hard-pressed to get out before their benefits with the Public Employees Retirement System are reduced by the state Legislature to save money.
The shrine to Barrios says it all. For more than a decade, staff members of the city's youth gang outreach program have collected newspaper clippings of Barrios on the job and posted them on the wall. Some discuss how he was at the center of a controversy in 1999 when police Chief Mark Kroeker came to Portland and instituted new grooming standards that mandated short hair and no earrings.
Officer 'is everything to us'
Barrios, who spent his career trying to avoid being caught up in bureaucracy, successfully lobbied to keep his ponytail Ñ a symbol of his Native American and Mexican roots. But until the issue was resolved, staff members at the gang outreach office hung fake braided ponytails on their doors to show support for Barrios.
'He is everything to us,' says Tonya Dickens, manager of the youth gang outreach program. 'I don't know what we're going do without him. Sometimes when things happen with our young people in the community, like a matter of life or death, we know if we can call anyone to come in and get a kid to calm down or get someone to turn themselves in, we call Barrios.'
Dickens and others in his circle say what separates Barrios is his cool, understated style and the sincerity in the way he treats people. He marks birthdays and holidays with cards and small presents. He frequently attends the graduation ceremonies of the youths he takes under his wing Ñ and has a gift for them, of course.
Assistant Chief Derrick Foxworth calls him 'the epitome of a community policing officer.'
Much like a social worker on wheels, he's constantly doling out words of advice, handing out bus tickets to teens who need to get across town and doing small favors for people.
He stops at an apartment just off Northeast Killingsworth Street and shoots the breeze with a Hispanic gang member in Spanish, assuring him that he'll keep a lookout for his stolen car.
As he drives past Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Failing Street, Barrios sees a young man on the corner, wearing a puffy blue coat on a near-summer day. The man, in his early 30s, is holding back tears.
'What's the matter, man?' Barrios asks gently. 'You down in the dumps? Is it your girlfriend? How can I help you out, man? What can I do for you today to get you off the street?'
He did the same decades ago with Everett Martin, now the jovial, familiar face in the city's youth gang outreach program. Martin, 42, says he wouldn't be where he is today if Barrios hadn't hounded him to seek treatment for years after he got hooked on drugs at the age of 19.
One day, something clicked, Martin said. He turned his life around at age 31 and has been clean and sober ever since.
'Officer Barrios is my best friend,' Martin says. 'I've always respected him, always appreciated him because he was the only person who cared about me. If not for him, I'd probably be dead, or I'd be locked up forever.'
Perhaps because of his own involvement in gangs on the streets of Chicago when he was a teenager, Barrios, who has four children of his own, has a way of putting young people at ease by not judging them, says TaNieshia Taylor-Streeter, a 21-year-old mother of two with one more on the way.
'Certain officers I don't get along with because of my last name,' she says matter-of-factly. 'I'm a Streeter, and they have a reputation for drugs, gangs. Usually, when they see a Streeter, it's always, 'Oh, she's a troublemaker.' But Barrios doesn't look at me like that. That's why I got so much respect for him.'
Officer remembers gang influx
Fifty-five-year-old Crannell takes much of the same approach to the job, noting that being successful with people Ñ gangsters, in particular Ñ is all about rapport. 'You respect them, and they respect you,' he says. 'The younger (gangsters) don't understand that right now because they don't have the same history, and those are the ones that are doing the shootings right now. But they'll learn.'
Benson calls Crannell a reservoir of knowledge that can't be replaced by the file cabinets of reports he leaves behind. 'You talk to him about gang members Ñ he's like a walking encyclopedia. He knows these people, their histories, their families É he knows them by name, and they all know him.'
Crannell also is the last remaining member of the original gang enforcement team and the task forces that were formed when gangs first came to Portland in 1987.
Crannell remembers his first encounter with those gangsters, who came from Pomona, Calif., and moved into Columbia Villa in North Portland. Crannell still has the Polaroids they took of themselves with their machine guns and gang signs, the walls covered in graffiti.
Immediately piqued by the new phenomenon of gangbanging, Crannell went to California to investigate.
'My function was to find out what's going on, what are these people doing?' he says. 'So I started talking to a lot of people, and every time an officer stopped somebody like that, I said, 'Take their picture, ask them where they're from.' ' Crannell would follow up and, at times, call their mothers in California to verify their stories.
'He was probably one of the few people who recognized early on that we had a gang problem when we were in the denial stage,' Foxworth says. 'If it was not for Neil Crannell and members of the community who alerted us to the gang problem, it could've been worse.'
Throughout the years, Crannell has seen firsthand the cycles of gang activity: the spike in the 1990s with the spread of crack cocaine and turf wars; the downward trend in the late 1990s as criminals were sent to prison for Measure 11 crimes and federal racketeering charges; and the changing face of gangs in recent years as older gangsters were released from prison and a new, younger breed took to the streets.
In the city's immediate future, Crannell predicts that there will be a rise in Hispanic gang activity as the population grows and moves outside of east Portland and Gresham, where they are largely concentrated now. He hopes that city leaders will be vigilant and restore the gang unit, which was reduced from four to two officers in recent years.
He says he'll probably stick close to home and pursue a law enforcement position in Vancouver, Wash. The current afternoon gang enforcement sergeant, Ed Hamann, will take over his spot.
As serious as his job is, Crannell, who occasionally slips into gangster lingo, approaches it with a sense of humor. One of his favorite stories involves a reluctant witness to a gang shooting who showed up to testify in court wearing a huge Afro wig, yellow raincoat and large sunglasses.
The judge didn't allow the disguise, but Crannell talked the witness into testifying anyway, and the case was successfully prosecuted. 'I still laugh at it with him today,' he says.