Northern Virginia's highest-ranking law enforcement officials yesterday introduced their newest weapons in the war on gangs: Brochures, posters and radio and television commercials targeting parents and children.
In launching its education and prevention campaign yesterday, the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, a federally funded group of local, state and federal law enforcement officers, said gang membership can be slowed if students and parents learn early about the consequences of joining gangs.
Herndon Police Chief Toussaint E. Summers, left, listens to Arlington Police Chief Doug Scott answer questions. To Scott's left are Loudoun County Sheriff Stephen O. Simpson and Secretary of Public Safety John Marshall.
(Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post)
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The authorities unveiled posters and said they would send brochures home with parents and display them at schools as part of the task force's "Gangs -- You Lose!" campaign. At the news conference in Manassas, authorities also announced a new hotline phone number that anyone can call to report gang activities. They emphasized that police cannot fight the problem alone and that parents need to know that their children could be targeted for recruitment or already be members.
The education and prevention offensive is the second phase of the task force's plan. The group was created in 2003 by Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and helps police departments investigate gang activity. The task force is one of several in the region that have been created in the past year to combat the escalating violence and the successful recruiting tactics of Northern Virginia's gangs.
Law enforcement officers and gang experts nationwide agree that airing media advertisements and disseminating educational material in communities alone will not teach parents about gangs or stop youngsters from joining.
They emphasized that all schools in Northern Virginia, not just some, need to incorporate "life skills" classes, including anger management and how to refuse joining a gang without fear of reprisal.
Fairfax Police Chief David M. Rohrer said the task force will need to broaden its mission beyond the schools and penetrate the whole community to make sure parents hear it.
"There's no easy answer," Rohrer said, adding that officers need to take the "next step" and "go into churches and have a chance to work one-on-one" with parents.
The posters unveiled yesterday are written in English and Spanish and show students with despondent facial expressions in jail cells. "Las pandillas te daran los mejores momentos de tu vida," reads one poster, which translates to "Gangs will get you the time of your life."
A television public service announcement shows an athletic jersey, a military uniform and hospital scrubs, and then an orange prison jumpsuit. The narrator asks, "Which uniform will you wear?" and tells viewers to "choose carefully" because if they join gangs, "your uniform will be chosen for you."
James Howell, a researcher for the National Youth Gang Center Institute, a federally funded Florida-based organization that researches gangs, said the advertisements might not be as effective as life-skills classes for elementary or middle schoolers. Posters and brochures are used elsewhere in the country but are really considered "a first step."
"I don't think young adolescents connect the dots between cause and effect. They say, 'Well that doesn't apply to me. My gang is okay. I am not going to get caught,' " Howell said. "Communities need good strong [after-school programs] like a police athletic league, so police would become kids' mentors. Scare tactics aren't effective as the interactive approach in the classroom setting."
In Los Angeles, gang members and their parents can be referred -- or even ordered -- to attend after-school programs involving counseling, tutoring and parenting classes, said Officer Marlo Lopez del Haro, who works in the juvenile division. One program resembles a boot camp.
But the posters and ads carry a powerful brevity that might resonate more with youngsters than the 13-page brochures, Leesburg Police Chief Joseph R. Price said.
Herndon Police Chief Toussaint E. Summers said that it is "unlikely that the kids will look at the brochure," but he said he hopes the brochures reach homes and parent-teacher associations.
One of the biggest components of the education and prevention campaign, authorities said yesterday, is raising awareness among parents who otherwise might be unaware of their child's gang involvement.
"We need to help our parents understand what their role is," Loudoun County Sheriff Stephen O. Simpson said. "I know we're all busy with work, but we can no longer use that as an excuse."
Northern Virginia is home to as many as 2,500 gang members. The most dominant gang is Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. Members have been convicted in felonies ranging from murder to grand larceny.
Summers said the task force's first phase in combating gangs, known as "suppression," resulted in about 400 arrests. The next campaign, which will focus on intervention, will try to persuade members to leave their gangs. It will be launched later this year or next year.