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How to...Crack Down on Gangs

While the problem isn’t going away, some agencies are making progress in stopping gang activity.

January 01, 2004  |  by Shelly Feuer Domash

Taking Back Rural Areas

Hunter Glass, a detective with the Fayetteville (N.C.) Police Department, found a unique way to convince citizens that gangs were in their town. Because Fayetteville is a small city, many residents were in denial about the presence of gangs. His department had to find ways to overcome this denial, and it found success with the use of video cameras, facilitated by school officials.

“We did a lot of video taping,” says Glass. “When we deal with the parents who say, ‘It’s not my kid,’ when they look at the video it’s kind of difficult for them to dispute.”

According to Glass, his department initially received a very negative reaction from the parents. They accused him of being prejudiced against all types of groups. But tapes that caught teens on tape painting graffiti and committing other crimes at school convinced parents otherwise.

“I told them, ‘Don’t look at me; just look at the video behind me,’” he says. “You should have seen their faces and the looks on the kids. It reduced the amount of activity in that school by virtue of that one act.”

Working with parents and schools is an important part of combating gang activity, especially in small towns. And it doesn’t always require video tape.

In order to deal with the recent gang influx in Dubuque, Iowa, Lt. Dan Avenarius of the Dubuque Police Department says his agency had to gear up quickly, and that meant enlisting the help of the locals.

“Gangs are pretty smart in adapting to proactive programs that police and communities have,” Avenarius says. “They develop counter measures. The smarter we get, the smarter they get.”

Avenarius says that, especially in a smaller town where gangs have not traditionally been a problem, it’s important for law enforcement agencies to inform the public about gangs and gang activity.

“We need to educate the public that just because they are not seeing things happen on the street corner every day it doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem. Law enforcement agencies need to continue to do a better job of communication,” he says.

But letting the public know that gangs exist in their area is not enough. For citizens to contribute to the solution, they must continue to monitor gang activity and alert law enforcement to any differences they notice.

“I think there need to be a couple of approaches,” says Avenarius. “Communities and law enforcement need to be on a constant vigil for what is changing in their community. What are the signs of gangs or lack of signs?”

But he warns that giving citizens information about gangs in their area must be handled delicately.

“When we educate the public we need to deal with it carefully or we could wind up causing paranoia or fear,” he says. “We need to tell them in a calm, rational manner that these are the things we need to be concerned about, not that things are out of control. Then we need to ask for their help.”

Police officers can’t be the only ones to get involved, as Rodriguez and Glass discovered. The entire community needs to join the fight, including schools.

“The streets and the schools mirror each other,” Avenarius says. “You need to involve school officials.”

Communities shouldn’t forget, however, to be on the lookout for older gang members that are out of school, as well. The kids that join gangs grow up to recruit new members. And when convicted members newly out of jail return home, they continue the process.

Putting Them Away

More than 1,800 federal buildings in the Los Angeles area fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Federal Protective Service, under the Department of Homeland Security.

Officer Roman Morales says he has seen a growing gang problem there and it’s not getting better.

“I see more in the future. For the longest time, our agency and others had the mentality that it was not our problem. As we started to look into it, more and more surfaced until we realized it is our problem as well."

The service’s biggest asset in gang suppression, Morales says, is stricter sentencing. “We tell them we are not the locals, we are the feds. When we hit, we hit them harder.”

On the East Coast, federal authorities are also joining the fight to get gangs behind bars. On Long Island, the F.B.I. has recently taken charge of a task force that brings together County police agencies, the New York State Police, and dozens of local agencies in villages and cities. And while they make gang arrests whenever possible, their goal is more forward-looking.

According to Special Agent Bob Hart, “What we are attempting to do is build long-term racketeering cases against gangs, viewing them as criminal enterprises. By doing so, showing structure, a mission, a purpose, we are able to bring them into the federal court system under RICO statutes.” Under RICO, gang members are put away for a much longer period of time than they would be for crimes prosecuted individually.

With the cooperation of the U.S. Attorney’s office of the Eastern district of New York, Hart says these gang members are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the federal statutes. He says the success and cooperation of the task force is “unprecedented and just fantastic” and sees it as an effective tool for use in the long-term suppression of gangs.

But putting a gang member away doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not a threat.

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