Task Force Tackling Gangs From All Angles

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 20, 2006

It's been three years since a spate of gang violence sparked the creation of a regional gang task force in Northern Virginia. Since then, the task force has grown bigger and more versatile, while reports of serious gang crimes have plunged, dropping by 39 percent from 2004 to 2005 and heading lower again this year.

At a news conference Monday at the Fairfax County Government Center, police commanders and social workers from Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun, Prince William and Fauquier counties, along with representatives of Alexandria and other cities and towns, marked the third anniversary of the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) obtained the initial federal grant that seeded the program, which started with a budget of $516,000 and most recently topped $2 million, Herndon Police Chief Toussaint Summers said.

"What makes this task force unique is their holistic approach" to gangs, Wolf said. In addition to its police work (arresting and disrupting gangs), the task force is involved in prevention (actively discouraging youths from joining gangs) and intervention (helping gang members escape the thug life for something else).

The task force spends 51 percent of its money on "suppression," or police work, and 49 percent on prevention and intervention, according to Summers, who chairs the task force, which is based in Herndon.

"I strongly believe that most gang members don't desire to be in gangs," said Robert Vilchez, the gang intervention coordinator for Arlington and Falls Church. "But it's like climbing a greased pole, and they need our help getting out."

Experts said it's hard to know exactly how many gang members are in the region at one time: Some move, some go to jail, others move in. In the three years of the task force's existence, Lt. Ron Haugsdahl of Fairfax said, the "shot-callers" of the Latino gang Mara Salvatrucha have changed five or six times.

Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, started in Los Angeles in the 1980s but has branched out across the country. In 2004, federal authorities estimated there were 1,500 to 2,000 MS-13 members in Northern Virginia, with other gangs such as 18th Street and South Side Locos also claiming considerable numbers. Haugsdahl said that in the past three years the task force has interviewed 2,500 gang members and associates, but he couldn't say how that reflected the total population in the region.

Leesburg Police Chief Joseph R. Price said the task force had done about 400 gang-related interviews in the first six months of this year and produced 250 intelligence reports. The task force arrested 326 people, 155 for felonies and 171 for misdemeanors, from Jan. 1 to June 30, he said.

Vilchez said the task force was undertaking a regional gang assessment to determine the scope of the problem. "It's unique in that it's never been produced in any part of the country," Vilchez said. "This assessment will provide a road map and strategies for action."

The task force has grown from six jurisdictions in 2003 to 16. In 2004, when there were 11 jurisdictions in the task force, 1,710 gang-related crimes were reported. In 2005, there were 1,415 in those jurisdictions -- a 17 percent drop, Price said.

The majority of gang-related crimes are vandalism or graffiti. When those are removed from the statistics, leaving only crimes such as homicide, robbery, larcenies and auto thefts, the numbers fell 39 percent from 2004 to 2005, Price said.

This year, with 16 jurisdictions now reporting statistics, the number of gang crimes in the first six months was 800 -- but 487 of those were vandalism or graffiti, Price said, leaving only 313 serious gang-related crimes, which portends another large drop. There have been no gang-related homicides in Northern Virginia since May of last year.

But standard police work now means more than just arresting the bad guys. Price pointed out that task force members have conducted 43 training seminars for more than 5,000 schools employees, teaching them how to recognize gang involvement. An additional 12,000 have received similar training, Price said.

Each of the counties in the task force also has developed a Gang Response Intervention Team, which brings together an array of social services and juvenile court experts to help direct gang members away from trouble, Price said.

In Fairfax in 2003, Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said, only three middle schools had after-school programs to provide activity for youngsters between the end of the school day and dinnertime. By this fall, Connolly said, all 26 middle schools in Fairfax will have five-day after-school programs for at-risk youths. In addition, Cox Communications has provided $3 million for six new Boys and Girls Clubs across the county, and all should be operating by next year, Connolly said.

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