There are more than 300 of them in New York — violent crews of dozens of 12- to 20-year-olds with names such as Very Crispy Gangsters, True Money Gang and Cash Bama Bullies.
Police say these groups, clustered around a particular block or housing project, are responsible for about 40 percent of the city’s shootings, with most of that violence stemming from the smallest of spats on the street or social media. They are also behind the spate of knockout attacks that plagued Brooklyn’s Jewish neighborhoods late last year.
“It’s like belonging to an evil fraternity,” said Inspector Kevin Catalina, commander of the New York Police Department’s gang division. “A lot of it is driven by nothing: A dispute over … a wrong look or a perceived slight.”
The trend of smaller, younger crews has also been seen in Chicago and Northeast cities over the last few years as police have cracked down on bigger, more traditional gangs, experts said. While the more traditional gangs still exist, their members are usually older and understand the timeworn credo of organized crime: violence is bad for their shady business.
Not so for the crews, whose recklessness prompted former Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly in 2012 to launch an initiative to confront the crews dubbed Operation Crew Cut.
Investigators now focus on gathering intelligence about specific crews — understanding their activities, allegiances and feuds, which they glean through traditional street policing and trolling of online sites, cellphone photos and even recorded jailhouse calls.
Police have also stepped up arrests of the most active crew members. In Manhattan, prosecutors set up an internal email alert system that notifies them when crew member are arrested, even on minor charges, and provides beyond-the-rap-sheet details for bail arguments.
In a recent case in Harlem, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. says a 2009 killing kindled years of vendetta attacks, including three killings and 30 shootings. Sixty-three people were rounded up, and at least 62 entered guilty pleas, including crew members so young that they would schedule attacks for after school.
“When you ask young adults, ‘Why? Why did you shoot that young man?’ Probably 80 percent of the time the answer is: He disrespected me,” said Kai Smith, an ex-con-turned-businessman who runs a gang-diversion program in city high schools.