DeKalb’s Gangs: Word of gang violence leaves Greek Row residents uneasy, but what truth is there to rumors?

By Rachel Scaman

Read a scroll version of this story online here.

It’s 5 a.m. on a school night in late March and members of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity are just heading to bed.

The fraternity brothers were up all night protecting their house from the gang violence rumored to be going around Greek Row. But, that’s exactly what police say DeKalb gang violence is: a rumor.

Between March 23 and March 30, a photo of a vandalized dumpster was posted on Facebook. “GDI” was spraypainted on the dumpster. GDI — “goddamn independent” — is a term used for students who aren’t affiliated with Greek life. The people who shared the photo mistook the letters to mean Gangster Disciples, a Chicago gang that has been around since the ’60s.

Some thought the tag meant the GD’s had begun their initiation process, which people feared would involve initiates assaulting, raping or killing people.

“The photo was never reported to NIU or DeKalb police,” said NIU Police Chief Tom Phillips. “The story grew, and soon we had parents calling the president’s office.”

Phillips said people complained about the lack of information being given to them and said police should have sent out an alert that there was gang activity.

“The rumors got out of control,” said Phillips, who started as NIU’s police chief in the fall after having worked at the University of Illinois at Chicago Police Department since 1996. “Eventually there was a rumor that three Evan Scholars had gotten mugged.”

Sgt. Steve Lekkas, head of the DeKalb Police Department’s Targeted Response Unit, said just because there is graffiti doesn’t mean it’s affiliated with gang initiation. The Targeted Response unit specializes in street crime, investigating ongoing problems that cause a nuisance to the community.

“We haven’t had any gang-related crime this year,” Lekkas said. “There’s been some graffiti, but no gang wars.”

DeKalb’s gang history

Lekkas said DeKalb has had gang-related crimes in the past, and he has investigated gang crimes before.

“There’s definitely some violence, but it wasn’t at all connected to the graffiti that was on the dumpster,” Lekkas said.

DeKalb police responded to 37 suspicious gang activity/person reports in 2010, 17 in 2011 and 13 in 2012, according to the department’s annual crime report.

While gang activity may be minimal, 54 gangs were identified as residing in or visiting DeKalb in 2011, and more than 350 gang members had contact with DeKalb Police between 2008 and 2011, according to a 2011 Northern Star article.

The DeKalb Police Department implemented a gang unit in 2009 to combat an increase in gang activity. The gang unit’s duties include surveillance activities, gang awareness training for school officials and parents and follow-up gang-related investigations.

There was no report of gang activity in NIU’s annual safety and security report.

Campus reaction

When the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity members volunteered to stay up all night, it wasn’t because they were partying. They wanted to protect their house, which has windows on the first floor. They were concerned about the people on Greek Row.

“As a house many of the guys did not react but were concerned and on edge,” said George Shakro, junior history major and president of Phi Kappa Psi. “Several brothers, including myself, could not sleep that night and tried to find anything that could be used as a weapon, and [we were] constantly checking windows and doors to make sure nothing was going wrong.”

Shakro said he initially thought nothing of the Gangster Disciples rumor, but as it spread he began to take it more seriously. He said the university brushed the rumor off.

“Greeks are just as much students as anyone else living on campus, and we deserve the same sense of security where we live,” Shakro said.

Students took to social media to share concerns with administration.

“Where’s our safety bulletin regarding the Gangster Disciples tagging happening on Greek Row? Often times this means a gang initiation is starting up, and that usually entails raping and/or killing innocent people,” a student posted to NIU’s Facebook page on March 27. “Hundreds of students live in that area, and we have a right to know what threatens our safety.”

By March 28, Phillips had responded: “We investigated the incident and learned there was graffiti in the area. However, the painted letters [were] associated with anti-Greek life sentiments, not gangs.”

NIU officer Junelle Bennett attended a Sigma Kappa chapter meeting to talk about safety on Greek Row.

“During the whole weekend we were advised to walk in groups and be aware of our surroundings,” said Jacqueline Jones, sophomore family social services major and Sigma Kappa member. “My sisters and I were all cautious and afraid when leaving our house.”

Even though there have been no reports of gang activity this year, Ali Hayward, sophomore business administration major and Sigma Sigma Sigma member, said she wasn’t surprised when she heard the rumors about gang activity.

“It’s DeKalb,” Hayward said. “It makes us feel unsafe because we can’t even walk down the street without worrying we’re going to get jumped or attacked.”

Shakro said he has heard of gang activity near Greek Row from older Phi Kappa Psi members.

Fernando Ramirez, sophomore business marketing major and Phi Kappa Psi member, said he feels safe and unsafe at the same time while living on Greek Row. He said he knows it’s unlikely anything dangerous will happen during the day.

“I’m more concerned about the sorority girls walking by themselves at night,” Ramirez said.

While Ramirez is skeptical, Tim Olson, senior media communications major and Delta Chi member, said he feels safe living on Greek Row.

“Someone would have to be crazy to try and pick a fight with a house full of a couple dozen college guys,” Olson said.

Reporting future crime

Lekkas said the best thing to do when observing possible gang activity is to contact police immediately.

“Someone observed the graffiti, didn’t call the police, and it just spread around,” Lekkas said.

Apps like iWatch, which is used by the DeKalb Police Department, allow users to get information and submit tips to police on their cellphones.

Phillips and Lekkas said they’ve had experience in dealing with gang-related crimes.

“I take that stuff very seriously, and we don’t have a gang problem in DeKalb,” Phillips said.