The crackdown on violent gangs is poised to go national.
By a vote of 397 to 18, the U.S. House of Representatives has approved the creation of a National Gang Intelligence Center. The center, which would be run by the FBI, would centralize the federal effort to fight gangs.
If the Senate approves it, the center would be the latest step in a spiraling state, local and federal crackdown on street gangs, especially in Northern Virginia. Fueled by a surge in gang-related violence, authorities have established three gang task forces in Virginia.
Officials say the blitz is needed to combat a growing problem recently highlighted by the gang-related slaying of a Herndon youth and a machete attack that nearly severed the hands of a Fairfax County teenager.
"There is a gang problem all over our nation," Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) said.
Wolf secured funding for the center through the the House subcommittee he chairs after the White House sought to cut more than $100 million in funds for gang prevention programs nationwide. The annual spending bill for the Department of Justice, approved Thursday by the House, includes $10 million for the gang center. It is unclear when the Senate will act on the bill.
"This center will pull together everything the FBI does to fight gangs," Wolf said. "What's happening in Los Angeles can have a bearing in Chicago. So you have people here at the national center looking at it from an analytical and law-enforcement point of view."
Many details of the center, which probably would be located at FBI headquarters in the District, remained unclear yesterday, including whether FBI agents already focused on gangs would relocate to the center. The legislation provides $1.75 million for the FBI to establish the center; the rest of the $10 million is to hire FBI agents and analysts to focus on gangs. The bill also provides $3 million to hire federal prosecutors and Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents.
Some criminologists are skeptical.
"In theory, it's a great idea. Information is power, and because gangs move and spread and expand, it's important to have some coordination across the country," said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston.
"In practice, it may not work," he said, raising concerns that the intensified federal involvement might cause agents to spend more time wading through bureaucracy than arresting gang members. "FBI clearinghouses are not always the most efficient ways to fight crime."
Susan R. Paisner, a Maryland-based criminologist and law enforcement consultant, said the center could lead to turf battles with local officials. "It might be helpful to have a national repository of information, but what do you do with it?" she said. "If you learn important stuff about South American gangs in Fairfax County, how is that going to impact the gang problem in Prince George's County?"
Wolf said the criticism "misses the whole point. This is an integrated center for just that reason -- so you don't have somebody in Minnesota, somebody in New York, doing their own thing. You tie it all together."
He called the center a natural outgrowth of the FBI's anti-terrorism efforts since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- efforts that have focused on prevention and have been run out of FBI headquarters.
Bill Carter, an FBI spokesman, said the center would be "a repository of intelligence on gang activity, and I think that will only be helpful in the ongoing war against gangs." He said the FBI has successfully used federal laws in recent years to target gang leaders, in the same way the agency brought down the heads of mafia families.
Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R), a former federal prosecutor, said he understands the concerns raised by the FBI's involvement. "I know there are turf battles in law enforcement,'' he said.
But Kilgore said that the FBI works well with local police and that he is confident that the national center would only aid the fight against gangs. "The more eyes you have looking at a problem, the better,'' he said.
In May 2003, Kilgore formed one of the three gang task forces in Virginia. His task force focuses on legislation, and it recently persuaded the state legislature to pass statutes including a "three strikes and you're out" provision that toughens sentences for repeat offenders.
Last year, Wolf established another body, now called the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force. Based in Herndon and consisting of local and federal law enforcement agencies, it assists local police departments in gang investigations.
Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) also recently created a gang "strike force" made up of 12 Virginia State Police officers to aid local authorities throughout the state.