When police wouldn't release a gang map, Toledo Blade crime reporter drew her own

When the Toledo Police Department refused to release a gang map that showed which gangs claimed which neighborhoods in the small city 60 miles southwest of Detroit, crime reporter Taylor Dungjen decided to create her own.

That’s the short version of how the Toledo Blade came to publish a four-part series, along with a much-talked about gang map that drew the public ire of the city’s mayor.

Dungjen’s impressive work shows that crime reporters are more than just dramatic storytellers chronicling the underbelly of a given city; they give a community the context it needs to understand the nature of its own problems.

How she got the story

Taylor Dungjen

When reporting on gangs last year, Dungjen noticed that the nature of gangs in Toledo was changing, and that they were becoming more violent.

Last June, nine people were shot in a handful of incidents. That prompted Dungjen’s formal request for the gang map the police had created for their own use.

“I feel like numbers don’t lie," she said by phone. “That’s why I wanted the map. It’s always better to give people hard data.” Last year, she said, there were 36 homicides in the city and seven were gang-related.

For months, the newspaper wrangled in court for the information. The suit is still pending in the State’s Sixth District Court of Appeals.

Early in 2013, Dungjen and photographer Amy E. Voigt got tired of waiting and decided to make their own map. They began driving around the city, asking people if they knew anything about gangs.

“That got us nowhere,” Dungjen said.

So she tweeted out requests for help -- a strategy that worked. People put her touch with former gang members, with people who worked in prisons, and even with current gang members.

Dungjen and Voigt brought a 3-foot by 4-foot black-and-white map of the city and a set of colored pencils to potential sources -- first at a prison program, then in various neighborhoods -- and asked them to color in the boundaries of gang territories. Eventually, even some police sources helped with the effort.

You can click on the map to see it in its entirety.

The two journalists were hardly quiet about their project. They tapped into police sources and interviewed the chief of police. When they had the information they needed, they turned to the Toledo Blade's art department to create a map for the print edition of the paper. Web editor Ashley Sepanski then created the interactive map.

The map reveals complex layers of gang territories and domains. It shows that while some neighborhoods are claimed and defended; others, like most of the South Side, are merely staked out as territory for drug sales. The East Side of the Maumee River is mostly clear of gangs, except for a few small pockets. Some gangs have wide swaths, others a few narrow blocks.

In addition to the map, Dungjen’s series gives residents of Northwest Ohio a look into the lives of current and former gang members, as well as a historical look at the evolution of gangs in Toledo since the late 1980s.

In reading Dungjen's stories and looking at the map, I learned a lot about my hometown. My first reporting job was at the Blade, and much of my family still lives in Toledo, which has been ranked one of the country's "most miserable" cities.

Some pessimistic residents have described the city as “Little Detroit." "I hate it when people say 'Little Detroit' -- that's so wrong," said 24-year-old Dungjen, who started at the Blade two years ago as a crime reporter.

Reaction to the series, map

Reaction to the stories and the map has been mixed. The mayor called the Blade "irresponsible" for reporting information he wouldn't release, and said the series threatened Toledo's outside investment. Some callers from the suburbs made it known that they really don’t care about gangs in Toledo, Dungjen said.

She hopes that people come away from the stories recognizing the complexity and nuances of the problems in Toledo.

“I heard someone say, “Thanks, now I know where not to go,’ " she said. “That’s not what this means. You will likely be just fine [in these areas]. How do you tell people what’s going on?”

Dungjen said she hopes to follow up with more reporting about efforts that curb gang violence and ones that just waste resources. Recently, police have done massive roundups in some neighborhoods. Does that reduce crime? Do social programs that discourage kids from being in gangs help? These are some of the questions Dungjen hopes to answer.

"I feel like, because of this story, I know way more about gangs than a lot of people," she said, but added that "there are some things I will never understand.”

That will only motivate her to keep reporting.

Correction: This piece originally misstated the number of gang-related homicides last year.

  • Profile picture for user kellymcbride

    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.


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