YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — Capt. Rod Foley calls it The Bermuda Triangle, but it’s not a place where people disappear without a trace.
It’s just the South Side.
Foley, who has been Chief of Detectives twice and also served as police chief, said that part of town presents its own unique headaches for law enforcement.
“If it’s going to go wrong, it’s going to go wrong on the South Side,” Foley said.
WKBN has been exploring why the South Side — specifically eight census tracts stretching from Glenwood Avenue to Zedaker Avenue — are the most violent in the city. A high population, along with high poverty and high unemployment, is the breeding ground for most of the violence there.
Since 2000, 206 of the South Side’s 269 homicides have taken place in those eight census tracts. Those are more homicides than in any other part of town. The next closest is the East Side, which has 145 homicides.
Foley began his career as a patrolman in the blood-soaked 90s, when the city averaged 49.2 homicides a year. Three times Youngstown set a record for homicides, then broke it. The South Side also led the way in that decade when it came to violence, seeing 206 homicides. The North Side was next, with 140 homicides.
The eight census tracts that WKBN is spotlighting had 169 homicides during the 90s.
Foley said when he began his career, most of the violence on the South Side was west of Market Street and concentrated between West Midlothian Boulevard and Marshal Street.
That was an area of the South Side that was very poor and had a heavy minority population, who in the years before the 90s often worked low-paying jobs in the city’s steel mills and thus could not afford to move. Even if they could, redlining policies kept them in their neighborhoods.
After the 90s, the violence abated somewhat — it couldn’t stay that violent forever, even in Youngstown — in that part of town, but it moved east of Market Street.
The census tract with the most homicides since 2000 — 8016, with 42 homicides — saw 16 during the 90s and just 15 from 2001 to 2011. However, that changed from 2012 to 2021 as it saw 27 homicides, including 12 in the last three years.
The tract is bounded on the north and south by East Indianola Avenue and East Midlothian Boulevard and by Market Street and South Avenue from east to west.
Tract 8016 was also the poorest in the city, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, with a poverty rate of 53.6 percent.
Other places east of Market Street have also seen more violence. In the 90s, the east side of Market Street did not have as much poverty and unemployment. That changed after 2000, when poverty rates and unemployment rates rose far above national averages. Those same low poverty rates that plagued areas west of Market Street in the 90s still stayed low.
But it wasn’t just poverty that was driving violence east of Market Street, although that was certainly a factor. Gangs and drugs, which drove a lot of Youngstown’s violence in the 90s and early 2000s, began to creep across the east side of Market Street.
Another reason the South Side is often busy for police is the population of over 21,000, which is the largest of any of the four sides of town, said Lt. Gerard Slattery, who has headed up the Vice Squad for several years and is now in charge of the department’s Neighborhood Response Unit.
The NRU is made up of officers who were known for making a large number of gun arrests when they were in the regular patrol ranks and was created by Chief Carl Davis in 2021 to help crack down on violent crime in specific neighborhoods. NRU officers patrol neighborhoods where there have been a high number of shootings, gunfire calls and gun arrests. Because the South Side has the highest number of residents and those types of incidents, most NRU patrols are on the South Side.
When asked for a list of gun arrests and/or gun seizures in the eight tracts since 2017, the police department provided some statistics, but those numbers, because the department changed reporting and computer systems over the years, did not have 100 percent of the results that were requested. Still, the partial numbers show that the eight tracts made up the majority of gun arrests and seizures in the city.
Out of 149 records from 2017 to 2019, police made 80 gun arrests in the eight tracts. Tract 8016 had the most with 24 gun arrests.
Using a different reporting system in 2020 and 2021, 24 and 13 arrests were recorded, respectively. In 2020, tract 8016 had 10 gun arrests and two in 2021, according to those records.
Slattery said another reason why the South Side has a lot of crime in those eight tracts is that it is a good location to set up a drug house, if one is so inclined. He said several of the areas border the suburbs, where a large number of drug users come from, and it is easy for them to get their drugs there because it is only a short distance for them to drive. Also, Slattery said, it has easy access to Interstate 680 and is bisected by one of the major streets in the area, Market Street.
That drugs bring crime is no surprise; the majority of Youngstown’s violence is often fueled by the drug trade. But on the South Side, there were some gangs organized to sell drugs, and that made a bad situation worse because that also bought guns into the equation.
It’s policing 101: People who sell drugs always have large amounts of cash on them and are targets for robberies, so they always carry guns to protect themselves.
“With guns come drugs, and with drugs come high crime,” Slattery said.
Foley said the drug sales are what the gangs used to fund their other illegal activities. And what the gangs did was control entire neighborhoods. Their reputations were enough to allow them to get away with things because people were afraid to report them to the police.
Detective Sgt. Michael Lambert is the department’s expert on gangs. Before he spent several years as a homicide detective, Lambert specialized in gangs and working on gang cases.
Although the east side of Market Street was less violent in the 90s, the area around Erie and Ellenwood was home turf to one of the city’s most feared gangs, the 51/50s.
“Nothing was hotter than that corner,” said, Lambert, now a patrol supervisor on day turn. “We were not allowed to respond with only one cruiser.”
Authorities managed to build cases against the 51/50s, then the Ayers Street Playas on the East Side in the late 90s and early 2000s to dismantle both gangs. But even after those were dismantled, police had other gangs to watch.
There was a gang in the 400 block of West Glenaven Avenue and Hillman, the 400-block Crips, while on the other side of East Market Street was the L Unit, South Side Soldiers, H-Block and the Dale Boys, named for the streets East Avondale Avenue and East Auburndale Avenue. All those gangs were successfully dismantled after prosecution.
But what took their place were not so much gangs as groups, sometimes family-based but always neighborhood-based. And like a gang, they can intimidate a neighborhood and often sell drugs to fund other activities, Foley said.
Tract 8016, especially, has several of these groups, Foley said. He was Chief of Detectives for some of 2020 and most of 2021 when the city’s homicide and shooting rates skyrocketed.
Foley said a lot of those shootings stemmed from disputes on social media, or boyfriends arguing with girlfriends. The level of violence escalates, from first a house being shot up to outright murder, and the victims and suspects are often young… very young.
“We kind of went back to neighborhood factions and younger groups,” Foley said.
How can things turn around in these neighborhoods? Richard Rogers, associate professor of criminal justice at Youngstown State University, said the policing theory known as “hot spot policing” is often used in such neighborhoods.
Under that policy, police use extra patrols to saturate an area known for violence, both to look for people who commit violent acts and to serve as a deterrent.
Rogers, however, said some wonder if that just pushes criminal activity from one area to another.
Youngstown has run a variety of special patrols throughout the years, some specific for the South Side and some for the entire city. In late 2020, for example, after a rash of shootings, police concentrated on the eight-tract area where most of the city’s violence occurs, with a special emphasis on Dewey Avenue between South and Glenwood avenues.
Besides the NRU patrols instituted by Davis, the city also gets help from federal and state law enforcement agencies to run extra patrols in crime hot spots, as they did in 2021 and again this year, with the state Highway Patrol, who has joined them for a series of extra patrols, sometimes accompanied by a helicopter.
Federal law enforcement agencies also help out, including the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They helped run the Operation Steel Penguin program in 2019 and 2021, along with the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office, which seized 33 guns in 2019.
Foley said when he was chief, his goal was to make it “difficult” for people who were known to carry guns to keep carrying them. The goal was to get them to leave their guns at home.
“It worked well at times, and at other times, it felt like you were banging your head against a wall,” Foley said.