Serving on a gang task force can be tough duty. Just ask Det. Ricky Smith of the Hempstead Village (N.Y.) Police Department. The more than 10 years that Smith has investigated and gathered intelligence on gangs in his suburban Long Island jurisdiction has been a bumpy ride. He’s had to convince other local officers that gangs were indeed a problem outside of the big cities. He’s had to fight against neighboring community leaders who believed that admitting they had gangs gave their towns a black eye. And he’s had to deal with vengeful gang members who have threatened himself, his partner, and their families.
Despite all that, Smith says he’s enjoyed the work. It’s been the challenge of his career. And he has gained a reputation as being one of America’s leading gang experts.
Bringing the Agency on Board
Smith started working gangs out of necessity. In 1995, he and his partner Det. Joe Serrano started to see the formation of some local gangs in his Village. They decided to take a closer look.
Focusing much of their time on gathering information, Smith and Serrano started a database that included the gang members’ names, nicknames, tattoos, pictures, arrests, where they hung out, and any other pertinent intelligence. The database now contains information on more than 1,200 gang members.
Early on in their investigations, it became clear to the detectives that these gangs were committing many of the major crimes in the Village, including assaults, robberies, and homicides.
Unfortunately, not everyone in the police department saw the gang threat the same way as Smith and Serrano did. While the younger cops seemed to take an interest, the older ones would say, “They are not gang members; they are just assholes. They are all just wannabes.” Smith fought back and told them it’s the wannabes that become gang members.
Smith and Serrano were fortunate to have the administration of the department on their side. His chief, James Russo, and the Village’s mayor supported their work. They also became big supporters of the task force and sent the detectives for ongoing gang training, something that would later prove invaluable.
“I think after some older members started to see the in-service training that Joe and I were giving, they began to accept that they didn’t know that much about gangs and maybe it was time to start realizing gangs are here and that they are dangerous and to start looking at things a little differently than they were,” Smith says.
For the first two years, the task force dealt with only local gangs. Then in 1996, Hempstead officers began to see evidence that MS-13 and the Bloods were moving into town.
“We were lucky enough to have had the training, so when we started to see an influx of MS-13 and Bloods, we at least knew what we were looking at,” says Smith.
Hempstead Village is a very small town covering only 3.5 square miles. But it is located in the center of Nassau County, so one of the first things that Smith and Serrano discovered about local gangs was that their criminal activities crossed into other jurisdictions. That meant their anti-gang activities would have to involve officers from the Nassau County Police and other nearby agencies.