LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Lexington's Chief of Police, officers on the streets, and the county's top prosecutor all agree; more teenagers in Lexington are using guns, and often in public places where shots can hit innocent bystanders.
How much are gangs a part of this violence, and why don't juveniles fear the consequences of getting arrested? Top authorities in Lexington say there are no easy answers, especially as the violence continues on the streets of Lexington.
In July, WKYT reported on a shooting scene in Lexington on Danielle Court. A police officer on the scene told our reporter, "We have located numerous shell casings in the parking lot here behind me."
The call to police came in about nine of a 19-year old mortally wounded. The police officer on the shooting scene says, "It appears several vehicles were also struck by some of the gunfire."
It's become a familiar scene to Lexington Police: shots fired, someone gets hit, the gunman drives off.
Nakisha Gay, a friend of the shooting victim's family, says, "It's becoming an epidemic."
Gay says, "It's become more and more common to wake up and turn on the news, and see that a young man has been gunned down."
Two days later, 19-year old Darrius Twyman died. Gay was among family and friends honoring Twyman's short life at a park, but instead of just tears, anger and frustration filled the air.
An upset mother said, "We are parents. We need to make it stop."
Gay pleaded to the young people gathered nearby, "If you can do nothing else, please put the guns down."
In an interview earlier this year, Lexington Police Chief Mark Barnard agreed more teenagers are armed in Lexington, more bullets are flying, and more innocent people are getting hit, some killed.
Last year, Lexington had 25 murders. 14 of the victims were 26-years or younger. So far this year, nine of 17 murder victims are 26 or younger. Sometimes the gunmen are juveniles.
Lt. Joe Anderson says, "The juveniles we encounter, they are armed, and it seems they are armed with firearms a lot more frequently than they used to be..."
Lt. Anderson is a member of the "Gang Resource Unit." He says, "We have gangs in Lexington, and I think gangs are a problem."
In the 1990's police dismissed the idea of gangs taking hold in Lexington. Not anymore.
Lt. Albert Johnson of Robbery/Homicide says, "We're running into teenagers who are committing violent crimes. They're engaging in activities from robberies to assaults, to shootings, to homicides."
"They have no fear. They have no fear of consequences."
Lexington police have a policy that they will not publicly list gangs by name, but they acknowledge there are more than a few. They say there are groups with mainly White members, others that are primarily African-American and Hispanic. Police say gang members in Lexington are as young as twelve.
Lt. Anderson says, "We're also seeing more diversity where you may see a gang that was historically, heavily Hispanic, and now we're seeing male whites, female whites..."
Police say Lexington gangs tend to break into cliques and are very fluid.
Lt. Anderson says, "It's usually neighborhood specific. And within one particular gang, there may be a disagreement, and that gang can break off into factions, or what we refer to as cliques. So you could have numerous cliques or a subset if you will... we monitor and track all of these."
WKYT found pictures submitted as evidence in an armed robbery case that centered on a member of Lexington's "Down Bottom Gang." Police say the gang claimed an area off Georgetown Road in a neighborhood south of Ash Street. This gang member's run-ins with police started at age 14. By age 20, he was sentenced to ten- years in prison for armed robbery.
A year later, in 2016, D'Vonta Middlebrooks who police identified as a member of the "Down Bottom Gang," was charged in the shooting of 15-year old Trinity Gay. Investigators say she was caught in the middle of a shootout between two groups in the parking lot of a South Broadway restaurant. Middlebrooks has pleaded not guilty.
In April of 2015, UK student and Kentucky Kernel photo editor Jonathan Krueger was shot to death during a robbery on East Maxwell Street. Police arrested three young men. A detective testified all three suspects claimed to be members of the Ambrose street gang.
Commonwealth's Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn says, "Not all violent crime is being committed by gang members."
The Fayette County Commonwealth's Attorney's office does not prosecute juvenile offenses, but they hear the complaints of arresting officers. Red Corn says, "What officers on the street are talking about, is we pick up a juvenile, he or she has committed a crime, and we take them home. We don't take them to detention. There is not a swift and sure consequence for that particular behavior on that night."
A gang member or not, police say the common thread in these crimes is more teenagers with no fear of consequences, and little respect for people lives. The Commonwealth's Attorney hears from juvenile prosecutors. "By the time a case gets to them, the child has been, and we're calling them children because they're under 18, has been taken home a number of times, and now we're looking at something really serious."
Lt. Anderson says, "So when we catch a kid carrying a gun, a loaded gun, a loaded clip, one in the chamber ready to go, that's serious stuff. And the lack of respect of life, gets enforced by this idea, that there are no real consequences. There are just none. They know it's not coming."
So what's the answer? From the people we've talked to, it's not a simple solution. They point to a break down in the family unit that is generations deep, a culture of not holding people responsible, a lack of respect for people, and weak consequences for young law breakers. Police say it's a crisis that demands the attention of our entire community.