Monday, August 9, 2004

T-shirt trend worries cops

Baggy T's could hide guns, identity

By Jennifer Edwards
Enquirer staff writer

White T-shirts have been popular for generations, long before tough guys rolled cigarettes up in their shirt sleeves, preppies paired them with khakis or 50 Cent rapped in one onstage.

But the shirts, worn long and baggy, have recently gained popularity in high-crime areas. Police say the roomy shirts can hide drugs, guns and actual body size while helping criminals blend into the crowd.

Sean McFadgen, 14, left, and his dad, Lewis McFadgen, of Avondale, talk about the popularity of white T-shirts.
(Enquirer photo/GARY LANDERS)
The shirts are common in Over-the-Rhine, said Tom Besanceney, president of the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce. With more than $150 million in new development slated over the next couple of years, the chamber has been working with police to try to squash street drug trade.

"For this time of summer, it's pretty practical just to be wearing a loose T-shirt, but it's certainly become a uniform over here. They are all over the place," Besanceney said. "You never see one that is tucked into the pants. If there are people who want to conceal weapons or anything else, that would be the way to do it."

Police in Cincinnati and Lincoln Heights say there is no easy way to tell who wears the T-shirts for style and who wears them to evade police.

"It's a little bit of both. It's a fad but at the same time it's a tool they use to blend in and get away," said Cincinnati Police Sgt. Calvin Johnson, who also is the head varsity football coach at Aiken High School.

"They are hoping everyone sees the white shirt and doesn't pay attention to the facial characteristics or other things that might make it easier to identify a person," Johnson said.

Lincoln Heights Police Chief Ernie McCowen says the T-shirts are worn by street-level drug dealers or those who have committed assaults and break-ins.

"In the last year or two it's been a challenge. Twenty of them standing on the corner looking alike generates reasonable doubt," the chief said. "How does the police officer identify which in the 20 is selling the drugs? It's a tool and a tactic they use to confuse law enforcement and people who want to report drug dealers."

Both men dismiss a link in the T-shirt trend to gang activity, particularly in an age where many police agencies compile detailed databases of gang colors, symbols, clothes and other identifying factors.

But Cincinnati City Councilman Sam Malone, says he noticed the phenomenon in Avondale shortly after the April 2001 riots, including among a local gang.

Since then, it has spread to other communities, including Madisonville, Walnut Hills, Bond Hill, Roselawn, Price Hill, the West End and Over-the-Rhine. The trend offers gang members "perfect cover," Malone said.

Cincinnati police Officer Eric Smoot, who worked in the department's gang unit until it disbanded, also says he sees gang members wearing white T-shirts now.

"Because of initial gathering of intelligence and the identification of gang members, they changed their tactics," said Smoot, who patrols Over-the-Rhine. "Instead of being readily identified by each other and other people as a terror tactic, now they immerse themselves in the crowd so they won't be identified."

But teens in Roselawn and Bond Hill said they wear the shirts because they are cool, comfortable and in style.

"It goes with everything I have," said Sean McFadgen, 14, of Avondale, as he left the Deveroes store at Swifton Commons Mall in Bond Hill. "Everybody started wearing them like a fad."

His father, Lewis McFadgen, says he is not concerned about the negative side of the trend because his son wears the shirt for fashion and is rarely, if ever, in high-crime areas.

Sporting the shirts is OK, said McFadgen, 41, "at the appropriate time and the appropriate place. And as long as he understands that, I am comfortable with it."

One school district in Charlotte, N.C. - the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools - has banned solid-colored T-shirts to curtail gang problems.

The rule evolved in the past year after large groups of students began wearing white, pink and other colors of T-shirts that were associated with gangs, said school spokeswoman Jerri Haigler.

Except for some schools that already have uniform dress codes that ban all T-shirts, no white T-shirt bans have been imposed in local schools.

Officials at Cincinnati Public Schools and Lakota Local Schools in Butler County say the trend hasn't been a problem.

The shirts have been a minor concern at Princeton High School and some middle schools in that district. However, the fad does not appear gang-related and a formal policy banning the shirts probably won't be adopted, says superintendent Aaron Mackey.

"If we do see it appearing often with the same kind of kids that seem to congregate together, we do talk to them about that and it usually takes care of it," Mackey said.

Some parents say concerns over white T-shirts are overblown.

Patricia Carson, founder of a group to help parents cope with the violent death of their children - EMPTY (Endless Mothers Pain For Today's Youth) Inc. - says she buys white T-shirts for her 15-year-old grandson.

"I buy them because they are cheap," said Carson, 53. "Walgreens has them now five for $10."



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