Big Murk's Kids

Politics and mismanagement closed the books on the city's anti-gang program, but try telling this South Dallas fixture the problem's solved

There is a faint but distinct tearing sound as Billy Murkledove flips through a stack of old photos, each showing a group of smiling youths. The pictures are stuck together from age; Murkledove has collected them for almost a decade.

"This boy here, he got 40 years," Murkledove says, indicating a skinny child with a wide grin. Another flip, a 12-year-old flashes gang signs for the camera. "This one here caught a case. He was the lookout for a shooting."

These are Big Murk's kids, gangbangers and troubled teens from South Dallas with whom he's developed relationships over the years. Some ended up in college, some ended up with jobs, some ended up in prison.

Murkledove withdraws a letter from the city from another file. It begins: "Due to the current fiscal environment it has become necessary to reduce our staff size." His job as community outreach supervisor, focusing on anti-gang activities from within the Park and Recreation Department, has been slashed. The program's $330,000 budget has been absorbed into the budget of Youth Services, which sponsors mainstream programs such as after-school sports and summer camps. Except for a handful of caseworkers in the police department, Dallas' entire official gang-intervention effort is now dead, killed by the pen when the city manager signed the 2001 budget.

"They're just putting these kids out of the parks buildings," Murkledove says. "The city isn't in the anti-gang business anymore."

The park department says the program hasn't been killed, merely reorganized, but staff members are being moved from their offices, activities have been discontinued, and staff positions have been deleted from the budget.

In fact, the city has almost no intervention programs for any teen-agers who are either involved or flirting with a criminal life. The heads of city programs prefer to concentrate on more-manageable younger children or athletes with nowhere to play. Teen programs rely on good kids coming to them, instead of reaching out to kids on the brink.

"The kids don't need me in the recreation centers. Our focus was always outside the rec centers. My job was to teach them how to function in society," Murkledove says, sitting in what used to be his office. He's packing slowly, and the move is obviously painful.

Murkledove has watched the city's grim 10-year attempt at gang intervention from his desk as outreach supervisor to the Juvenile Gang Prevention Program, a position he held since the program was conceived. Its goal was to attract kids who didn't go for traditional city activities and keep them engaged, using city money, vehicles, and facilities to fight the aimlessness and boredom that drives juvenile crime. From his seat, Murkledove witnessed the city's inability to do this, a feat that dozens of youth groups in the city seem able to accomplish, powered by grant money.

The city spent years killing its anti-gang effort, starving it of influence and leadership before quietly stripping its budget. Park and Recreation officials say the program bit off more than it could chew in trying to tackle gangs, and the department has responded by abandoning all intervention efforts. The distaste for the program felt at higher levels of city government grew as it became a racial battleground between Hispanic and black power blocs and after a teen was murdered following a city-sponsored dance. The directorship of the program had more executive turnovers than pre-Napoleonic France. Flawed or not, the formerly high-profile program died a surprisingly unheralded death.

There's a reason the program lived unloved and died unmourned. It was a poorly executed effort born of city government's reaction to the media's coverage of gangs. It was under-funded (starting with a paltry $100,000 in 1991) and had a vague mandate. By attaching the focus specifically to gangs instead of overall at-risk juvenile intervention, the program became easy to dismiss as unnecessary when gang membership began dropping in the mid-1990s.

The effort became more than polarized by race; it became segregated. Outreach supervisors had separate programs based in different recreation centers. City workers in separate black and Hispanic communities who brought their programs together had to worry about creating or inflaming fights.

Yet somehow, Murkledove created his own fiefdom of juvenile intervention--to "do his own thing"--isolated from park department oversight. Taking advantage of political contacts, he was able to set up shop in his native South Dallas, while other supervisors were confined to recreation centers. Murkledove roamed his former neighborhood, using his violent history and redemption to enter the lives of children and their families to become an adviser, father figure, and role model for kids who didn't have one. If the program failed, it's harder to say Murkledove did.

Now, the big man is worried. Murkledove is being shipped out of South Dallas, where he was born and raised and where he feels he has a connection to a generation of kids drifting toward hopelessness and violence. He's concerned that the kids closest to serious trouble will see the city government only as an agency that is trying to put them away.

"This will leave a void. The city won't be interacting with the kids it needs to interact with," he says. "They are only reinforcing the belief that the whole system is set up to incarcerate."

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