Law enforcement authorities in Northern Virginia are officially ganging up on the region's gangs.
Gov. Mark R. Warner's recent creation of a gang "strike force" made up of 12 Virginia State Police officers was the latest step in a spiraling state, local and federal crackdown. Two other gang task forces were created last year -- one by a Northern Virginia congressman and the other by the state attorney general. Authorities have cranked up a new FBI gang squad, and a federal grand jury in Alexandria is probing gang activity.
Officials say the blitz is needed to combat a growing problem highlighted by the gang-related machete attack that nearly severed the hands of a Fairfax County teenager and the slaying of a Herndon youth by an assailant believed to be a gang member.
"The more people addressing this, the more approaches and ideas you have, the better,'' said Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R).
But experts are questioning whether the myriad resources amount to overkill, saying too many police officers could trigger turf battles and imperil coordination among agencies.
"Are they all going to play nicely together?'' said Susan R. Paisner, a Maryland-based criminologist and law enforcement consultant. "I'm just seeing bureaucratic snafus and way too many press conferences, and not enough of the real nitty-gritty, 'let's put our best investigators on this and leave them alone.' ''
Although law enforcement efforts are important, she said, gang prevention is more so. "If this is now your huge focus, what were you doing five years ago, when these 18-year-old kids were 13?'' Paisner said.
Wes McBride, president of the California Gang Investigators Association and a national expert who has monitored Northern Virginia's anti-gang efforts, said the recent rash of news conferences is typical of communities that realize they have a gang problem.
"Once the blood gets deep enough and the bodies start to stack up, the politicians will start to pay attention,'' he said. "They haven't done that in Northern Virginia until now.''
McBride noted that the Virginia approach of creating multi-jurisdictional task forces differs from how Los Angeles has fought its epidemic of gang violence. But he said that's mainly because Los Angeles County's vast size makes it less likely for the estimated 100,000 gang members there to cross state -- and even county -- lines.
Northern Virginia's "area is smaller, so you have guys going from state to state to do crimes, so you need federal help across state lines," he said.
The heightened awareness of Northern Virginia's growing gang problem stems from a recent spasm of violence. The 16-year-old victim of the May 10 machete attack, police say, is a member of the Southside Locos, a new and growing gang. Police have charged Hayner R. Flores, 18, with malicious wounding and gang participation. They say Flores is a member of MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, Northern Virginia's most violent gang and the focus of much of the recent attention.
Days after the machete attack, a 17-year-old Herndon youth was shot to death by a bicycle-riding assailant who had "MS" tattooed on his forehead, police said. Law enforcement sources have said the victim, Jose Sandoval, may have been a member of the rival 18th Street gang. A 16-year-old girl who was with Sandoval was shot in the back and is recovering.
In the news conference announcing his strike force, Warner (D) pointed to the Herndon shooting as an example of a case in which the new team of officers could have been called in to help with the investigation.
Robert P. Crouch Jr., the state's chief deputy secretary of public safety, said the officers will have a "home base" but will be dispatched to work with local law enforcement officers as needed statewide. He said that although he understood concerns about turf battles and coordination, he was confident that the various entities fighting gangs could work together by communicating and sharing resources such as databases of gang members.
"It can get confusing,'' Crouch said, "but I'm confident there will be a partnership.''
One thing that will help avoid problems, officials said, is that the state strike force and the two task forces have somewhat different missions.
While the strike force will operate statewide, for example, the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force restricts its focus to the local area. Started in 2003 by Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), the group consists of representatives from numerous local police agencies, along with various federal agencies and the state police. Task force members, based in Herndon, can initiate their own investigations but usually assist local police departments in gang cases when their help is requested.
"We come in and say, 'What do you need from us; here's the information we have on this; can we help with informants,' whatever. It's a secondhand role,'' Senior Sgt. Jerry Keys, Herndon police spokesman, said of the task force. The town's police chief, Toussaint E. Summers Jr., chairs the group.
The Herndon task force has not run into turf problems with its local partners, Keys said, because "there is a clear understanding that whoever we are helping, it's their case. We just help. Obviously we don't want to get into a situation where we're not working well together.''
Officials differentiated the Herndon task force from the one formed by Kilgore in May 2003 because the attorney general's gang task force has focused not on law enforcement but on toughening laws. With members ranging from Paul J. McNulty, the U.S. attorney in Alexandria, to police officers, prosecutors and pastors, Kilgore's task force recently persuaded the state legislature to pass a series of anti-gang laws. They include a broader category of statutes that aim to punish people for gang recruitment and a "three strikes and you're out" provision that toughens sentences for repeat offenders.
The Kilgore task force is now moving into a more direct law enforcement role, however, with recent proposals to add prosecutors to Kilgore's office and to create broader state grand juries that can extend across jurisdictional lines in probing gangs.
In Alexandria, a federal grand jury already has focused on Mara Salvatrucha, spurred by a 2001 killing on federal parkland at Daingerfield Island. Two gang members were convicted of that murder. In addition, an FBI unit has focused on gang problems in the District and Northern Virginia since November.
Murtaugh said that it is "valid to raise" concerns about coordination problems but that Kilgore's office is guarding against those problems by constantly communicating with police and state and federal prosecutors.
"I don't think that overlap is necessarily a bad thing,'' he said. "Everyone at every level of law enforcement has to be engaged.''