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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

Working with Corrections

One major player in the game of combating gangs is corrections. Keeping tabs on incarcerated gang members can give hints as to what’s going on in the outside world and can even help to curb convicts’ influence on the streets.

“Just because a person is incarcerated doesn’t mean he’s not recruiting,” says Arlington County’s Rodriguez. “It doesn’t mean he’s not giving out an order. Being locked up is just a temporary bump in the road for someone who’s determined to make a career out of criminal activity.”

A program in Orange County, Florida, seeks to join the expertise and intelligence of gang officers and corrections officers in a program that monitors gang members on the inside as well as on the streets.

According to Rusty Keeble, Commander of the office of security intelligence for the Orange County (Fla.) Corrections Department, Florida has been rated as the state with the most significant increase in gangs in the past 20 years. This is a title the state is working hard to get rid of, with help from its monitoring program.

In addition to its own gang unit, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office has an exclusive relationship with a gang unit from the Corrections Department that monitors the known gang areas in the county.

“Wherever gang members meet, they always see one of our gang investigators there,” says Keeble.

The Orange County Corrections Department is, according to Keeble, one of the first in Florida to initiate a gang unit that works with the local sheriff’s department. And so far, it’s been successful.

“I have 15 intelligence officers in the jail that are out there making human contact with gang members on a daily basis,” says Keeble. “They develop intelligence, know what gangs are doing, what the new trends are, where they hang out.”

These officers communicate on a daily basis with the Sheriff’s Office personnel, either via computer or telephone.

Once a gang member is released, the information is communicated to the Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office then contacts the gang member.

“There is nothing more efficient than, within 24 or 48 hours of release, a deputy knocking on your door and saying he knows you’re home now. It is a tremendous resource in terms of suppression,” says Keeble.

Inside the jail, corrections officers strictly monitor gang members and gang activity. Any type of gang activity is punished by disciplinary charges that can result in lengthened sentences. Intelligence is gathered by monitoring telephone conversations, visitors, and correspondence.

“During the monitoring phase,” says Keeble, “we find out if inmates are communicating with known gang members, discussing new meeting times or dates, new trends, or color changes. Then we inform the Sheriff’s Department.”

If an inmate who was held in Orange County is convicted and enters the state prison system, information from both the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and county corrections follows him or her into the system. The Department of Corrections picks it up and continues the monitoring and notification process.

“The prison system notifies us when a state inmate is about to be released,” Keeble says. “We have somebody in intelligence standing in every door of the criminal justice system ready to greet him.”

Keeping Track of Gangs

Gangs have become increasingly mobile, migrating from one jurisdiction to another and from state to state. Rodriguez has encountered gangs in Virginia that have come from Dallas, Texas; Raleigh; Miami; and New York. Therefore, communication among departments has become an essential tool in the war against gangs.

“We have to network and pass on information at critical points so that intel is received in a timely fashion,” says Rodriguez. “If we meet only once a month, then it’s old news. If we have contacts at other agencies, we can pass our info along quickly, whether by e-mail or telephone. We can let them know if a known gang member is in their jurisdiction and even send photographs so this person is no longer an unknown figure.”

Dubuque, Iowa, is located approximately three hours from Chicago, and while the area remains basically rural, local law enforcement has seen evidence of what Avenarius, who is also chairman of the Midwest Gang Investigators Association, describes as “every type of gang in the country.”

Avenarius believes that gangs chose Dubuque because it had been a relatively safe area with a low crime rate, providing new territory where they wouldn’t be immediately recognized and targeted by police.

More gangs are traveling to places seen as a safe haven, which is why working with cops across a state and in bigger cities more familiar with gang crimes can be so beneficial.

For Fayetteville PD, the Northeast Gang Investigators Association has become an important part of the department’s gang suppression techniques. “We have a real unique system across North Carolina,” says Glass. “They can call us or e-mail us. There is a constant communication between departments.”

Glass has found that communication with local departments can help find a gang member that may have moved not that far away.

“Gang members have a tendency to travel, especially through foster homes,” Glass says. “So, it’s much simpler if you pick up the phone and call another department.”

Crime analysts work closely with the Fayetteville gang unit, as well. According to Glass, they’re an important asset in finding gang-related crimes because they notice trends and crime hotspots.

In Memphis, Lt. Dale Lane of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office is president of the Tennessee Gang Investigators Association, a gang task force that includes correction officers and representatives of the U.S. Attorney’s office. They meet weekly. In addition, they work through Project Safe Neighborhoods, where the U.S. Attorney’s office reviews every firearms-related arrest.

“We also use covert operations to monitor gang leadership,” Lane says. “Once we I.D. gang members we work together to try to work from the top down. We try to cut the command and control off from the top.”

With all of these alliances among agencies, it’s easy to think that you’ll always be able to get the information you need. But updating information and maintaining the information you’ve collected can be equally important.

“You can’t collect information today and expect it to be good six months from now,” says Glass. “But you should always hold on to it because it may resurface. Once information is opened, it should never be closed. Even if the person dies, never close it. It needs to remain open for intelligence purposes. A homicide can occur ten years later because a little brother wants to take revenge.”

Looking Forward

The consensus of gang experts is that, despite their best efforts, in many cases, the best most departments can hope for is to keep the gang problem under control. And in many areas, gang activity continues to escalate.

According to Rodriguez, while the gang problem continues to increase in Virginia, he has to wonder what the reasons are behind it and what he and other cops can do—that they aren’t already doing—to stop it. He believes that, as a society, we must get to the core of the problem.

“Gangs are groups of individuals who are failures,” Rodriguez says, “either by their own fault or through their environment, and all they are doing is validating each other’s failures. We have to come up with a way to get the message out that joining a gang will get you nowhere. It may sound exciting, but in reality it can take your individuality and your life.”

If treated early gangs can often be controlled. If they are allowed to spread, they will take over communities, committing crimes and taking away a generation of our children. Law enforcement is the first line of defense in this battle.

Cooperation among agencies, constant communication and education, and zero tolerance are essential tools in fighting the war against gangs on your streets.

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Tags: How-To Guides, Fayetteville (N.C.) PD, Gang Intervention, Gang Prosecution, Gang Task Force, Orange County (Fla.) Corrections

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