Second of two articles
A recent infusion of money and task forces to combat the growing gang problem has resulted in redundant prevention efforts, turf battles and no new officers on the street in Northern Virginia.
A review of the budgets and objectives of the four major task forces serving the region, along with interviews with gang investigators, showed that even as the number of gang-related incidents has risen, none of the new initiatives has added frontline detectives, who are considered a linchpin of gang intelligence-gathering and suppression.
Proponents of the task forces say it was not their mission to add manpower, but that is what gang detectives say they need the most from their elected leaders.
In Fairfax County alone, supervisors of the police gang investigation unit report that the number of cases jumped over the past two years from 45 incidents a month to 125. During that time, the division lost a member because he was loaned to a forming task force.
"You talk about all these councils and task forces. . . . In my opinion, it's just a bunch of lip service," said Lt. Chip Hudson, a supervisor of the Fairfax police gang unit. "We haven't seen anything . . . no manpower, no equipment, nothing."
Instead, the four task forces, whose budgets total $3.5 million, have allocated much of their funds to establish programs that are similar for the same jurisdictions.
Task forces on state, regional and local levels all are producing anti-gang educational materials that will be sent to the same schoolchildren in Northern Virginia. At least three groups are independently developing after-school programs to keep students away from gang recruiters.
Both the "strike force" initiated by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and the task force founded by Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) are hiring special gang prosecutors to assist commonwealth's attorneys.
The leaders of the task forces say their efforts represent an early reaction to the region's increasing gang problem and that coordination among the groups will evolve eventually.
"Looking at it from the outside, I know it can look like there's overlap," Kilgore said. "But it's important that we all work together so that we are spending these tax dollars in the most efficient way."
The frustration of local gang detectives illustrates the difficulty governments face in uprooting the gang culture that has become entrenched in the Washington suburbs. Not only are the solutions expensive and complex, but the gangs, unlike state and local governments, know no jurisdictional boundaries.
Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said there has been little communication between his office and Kilgore's on anti-gang efforts. Last month, Connolly pressed forward with a "coordinating council" in Fairfax that plans to stanch gang recruitment by establishing after-school activities, among other programs. It was a fulfillment of a promise from his campaign last summer, he said.
But Connolly did not know that two other task forces, including Kilgore's, were trying to do the same thing in the area.
"It probably behooves all of us to sit down and look at the resources we have, to see that they are invested wisely," he said.
Connolly stressed he is not opposed to state or regional task forces, such as the one that Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) formed last year. But he noted: "I'm not on that regional task force; no member of the board is. That's something that Congressman Wolf organized. We applaud his leadership . . . but he's trying to organize across a region. I'm looking at the county, the 400 square miles that I represent."
After hearing the complaints of the Fairfax police gang unit, Connolly said, "It wouldn't surprise me to hear they need more resources." But he added that fighting gangs is not just a law enforcement issue -- preventing youths from being recruited into gangs is equally important.
"It's not a zero-sum game," he said. "We need more resources at the enforcement end of that spectrum and at the prevention end."
Wolf said he recalls a time when he was sounding alarms about Northern Virginia's growing gang problem, but few politicians listened. In November 2002, he called a meeting to talk about forming a regional task force, but almost nobody showed up, and it was canceled.
Officials' interest grew over the next year as gang violence occurred more often and with more prominence.
Then, on May 10, the hands of a 16-year-old boy who was a member of a gang called South Side Locos were nearly severed in a machete attack near Alexandria. His alleged assailant, Hayner R. Flores, 18, is believed to be a member of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS, Northern Virginia's largest and most violent gang.
Six days later, Jose Sandoval, 17, believed to be a member of a gang called 18th Street, was gunned down in Herndon by an assailant who had an MS tattoo on his forehead. A 16-year-old girl was shot in the back in the attack. She survived.
The string of sensational cases set off a frenzy of political activity, Wolf said. Officials in Richmond called for meetings.
Within days, Warner announced that he was dedicating 12 state police troopers -- his strike force -- to assess the gang problem throughout the state. Wolf was able to get additional congressional funding for his regional task force and Kilgore's group. In July, the Fairfax Board of Supervisors approved its coordinating council and called for a summit.
Wolf said he is pleased that the issue is getting attention. But he said he prefers prevention and education efforts in Northern Virginia be coordinated by his regional task force. What's more, as chairman of the subcommittee that controls the Department of Justice's budget, he can dedicate federal funds directly to that group.
"I don't want to be in the position to tell the counties what to do, but I do think you need coordination," Wolf said. "The regional task force [includes] every police chief in the region and is probably the way to go because they understand the problem best. . . . But that's a decision of the local people."
Hiring more street detectives is the most expensive anti-gang effort, local officials agree. Fairfax's 11-member gang unit, for instance, costs $1.4 million.
But top officials in the Fairfax police department said the fight against gangs must include more than enforcement.
"Fairfax's response is not limited to the gang unit," said Lt. Col. Charles K. Peters. "We've got a very broad response to the gang problem." He added that "there is no question" that the gang unit is adequately staffed.
Mary Ann Jennings, a police department spokeswoman, said the gang unit does not need more officers because "they are not classic investigators and their cases are not as involved. . . . They are in intelligence gathering; they are called in as experts to lend their expertise in a case."
But Sgt. Greg Smith, another supervisor of the county police's gang division, disagreed with statements that the unit is fully staffed. It used to have two supervisors and nine detectives, but it lent one person to Wolf's regional task force.
"We have eight guys covering 400 square miles in Fairfax County," Smith said. "You do the math. To say we are stretched thin is an understatement."
From 2001 to early 2003, the unit hit MS so hard that the gang began to move to the outer counties, Smith said. In one case, Fairfax officers in a joint operation with other jurisdictions arrested dozens of MS members who were holding disciplinary hearings for new recruits in Bull Run Regional Park.
Now the gangs are getting smarter.
Many are no longer holding meetings in Fairfax and the inner counties and have begun to move out to Loudoun, Prince William and as far as the Shenandoah Valley. They no longer meet outdoors, and they do business in hotel rooms instead of parks, Smith said.
MS, for instance, has treasurers who collect dues from members, added Ron Haugsdahl, a Fairfax sergeant who leads the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, which Wolf started. And, instead of juvenile acts of violence, the gang is becoming involved in drug dealing and more sophisticated crimes, investigators said. Its big bosses from the West Coast visit occasionally, they said.
"That's our biggest fear -- when they become organized and focused on drugs," Haugsdahl said. "They changed tactics, and we are in the process of changing our tactics, too."
State and federal officials acknowledge that local police have the best intelligence and most expertise for handling gangs in their jurisdictions. The dozen officers of Warner's strike force will largely rely on local departments to train them and keep them up to date, said Col. Steven Flaherty, superintendent of Virginia's state police. In turn, the state troopers will use that knowledge to help form gang units in jurisdictions that don't have them.
Wolf's task force also relies on local departments to inform it about cases and major incidents, Haugsdahl said. The group, which meets in a secret location in Herndon to protect itself against gang threats, draws 14 officers from jurisdictions throughout the region.
Manassas Park gave up one of its two officers dedicated to gang work for the task force, as did some other localities.
That puts more work on the officer who remained in the department, Haugsdahl said. But when a big case occurs in the city, for example, the task force can swarm in with a huge regional force.
"It's like calling for backup," he explained. "We are a mishmash; we do everything. We don't say no to any request."
That kind of cooperation is exactly what Wolf envisioned for Northern Virginia.
"That's why we did the task force," he said. "Rather than me just saying, 'Here's what I'm going to do,' we pulled everyone together to get them to say, 'What should we do?' . . . But the more coordination the better, because what you learn in one county can be learned in another county. . . . I'm just pleased that at least everyone now is getting involved."