ST. PETERSBURG — Just before he was to give a talk to high school students about gangs, Officer Eric Tinsley spotted a teenager with questionable apparel.
The teen had a red bandana, carefully arranged, hanging out of his pocket. Tinsley confiscated it.
And although Tinsley didn't mention the incident during his talk Wednesday at Gibbs High School, it underscored his point: Gangs are here.
From the auditorium stage, Tinsley asked the junior class how many knew someone in a gang. Dozens raised their hands.
Gangs trick you into thinking they will offer money, protection, excitement and a kind of family, said Tinsley, who is a school resource officer with the Pinellas district's police force.
Instead, he said, gangs lead to arrests, lifelong labels, shootings, even death.
"I'm tired of seeing young people lose their lives before they even get started," said Tinsley, who delivers this lecture to schools throughout Pinellas County.
The message resonates at Gibbs, where earlier this year a student was convicted of shooting and killing a St. Petersburg police officer.
Nicholas Lindsey, who is now 17, the same age as many in the audience, felt pressured and intimidated by gangs in his neighborhood, according to testimony at his trial. But Facebook also showed him flashing gang signs and mugging for the camera with a wad of cash between his teeth.
After his arrest last year, Lindsey's family spoke to the Times about the gang influence that started to creep into his life, and the struggle to keep him straight after he started getting into trouble with the law.
Longtime teacher Rick Bose joined Tinsley on the stage Wednesday to talk about Lindsey.
"I'm going to tell you," he said, "Nick was a sweet kid in my classroom."
But now, "it's over," Tinsley said. "He's going to wake up every day in a cell."
Tinsley also mentioned the men who shot into a St. Petersburg house in 2009 because of an argument between rival gangs. Their gunfire killed one person — an 8-year-old girl named Paris Whitehead-Hamilton.
Four men went to prison for the crime, including three who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Gangs hurt the victims of crime, but they also hurt their own families, Tinsley said. Even if you just hang out with gang members, Tinsley warned, the bullets might still hit you in a drive-by.
Male gang members get "beat in" in an initiation, and so do females. But females sometimes get "sexed in," he said.
Another man who joined Tinsley on stage was Louis Ortiz, who feels lucky to be assistant produce manager at a Pinellas County grocery store, and lucky to be alive. He grew up in Chicago and was a member of the Latin Kings.
"I've seen a lot of friends of mine die," he said. "I've had a friend of mine die in my arms. He was only 16 years old. He had a baby daughter also."
Ortiz, now 36, eventually moved to Florida to get away. But sometimes, he still reflects on what he missed from his years in the gang life.
Before Tinsley's talk got going, Ortiz sat in the auditorium while representatives of the Balfour company explained how to buy class rings. It was a pitch familiar to just about anyone who has spent much time in high school. But Ortiz shook his head during the presentation. "I didn't go through all this," he said.
The students on Wednesday sometimes paid close attention and sometimes snickered — like when Tinsley showed slides that showed goofy pictures of gang members.
But for some, it sunk in.
Sherrod Robinson, 17, said he felt sad when Tinsley showed a video of a funeral of someone killed in gang violence. He said he has known people with gang affiliations, and the talk made him think about what people can lose because of gangs. "It made me think about my family and my friends and stuff like that," he said.
Tinsley warned students that even by associating with gang members, they risk being "labeled" along with them in ways that can affect their future. In a separate interview, Tinsley said he is aware of recent Tampa Bay Times stories questioning how lists of gang members are compiled and highlighting a young man with a clean criminal record who got labeled a gang member.
Tinsley said he doesn't want to label kids, he simply wants to prevent them from getting involved with gangs. "I look at saving this kid instead of labeling this kid," he said.
Times Staff Writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232. Follow him on Twitter at @ckruegertimes.