Loudoun County has hired juvenile probation officer David L. Carver as the coordinator and first full-time employee of the Gang Response Intervention Team (GRIT), a two-year-old program to unify efforts by agencies to keep young people from joining gangs.
"We can work together as one to increase the number of kids we can provide services to," said Carver, 38, who has been chairman of the team since its inception.
GRIT includes representatives from Loudoun public schools, parks and recreation department and mental health agencies, Leesburg's police and parks departments, the commonwealth's attorney's office and court, probation and parole officials. The team has used educational programs and community forums for students, parents and teachers to try to keep young people from joining gangs. In January, the program provided a dozen digital cameras to help authorities track and monitor graffiti to remove it quickly and prevent a recurrence.
Carver said one of his first priorities would be to help the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, a federally funded group of local, state and federal law enforcement officers that was established in 2003 by Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.). Although the task force now focuses on law enforcement, Carver and others want it to work on preventing people from joining gangs and helping gang members get out.
Carver said several projects were being considered. One project would try to involve more children in such recreational activities as fishing, bicycle riding and attending high school football games to show them they can have fun without joining a gang.
Another possibility would be to identify children at risk of criminal behavior, such as those with a history of academic trouble, disciplinary action or truancy, Carver said. Community outreach workers would visit the youngsters at school and home at least once a week, work with their families and provide referrals to other agencies if needed.
Eventually, GRIT officials hope to offer job training and other resources to give gang members more options. "A lot of this may be coordination of existing services," Carver said.
Kraig Troxell, spokesman for the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office, said GRIT represents a new tactic in curbing gang activity by enlisting parents and teachers. "We're reaching out our hand to the community and hoping the community will reach back," he said.
Sheriff's officials have said there are about 20 gangs in Loudoun, including Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, an international gang that has spread from California to Northern Virginia. Sheriff's officials say most of the rest of the Loudoun gangs are "homegrown."
Carver, who declined to specify his new salary, previously worked in the county's supervised release program and was in charge of the electronic monitoring of juveniles. He also is the coordinator of a young offender program that aims to keep children younger than 14 from breaking the law again.
Also beefing up the county's anti-gang efforts is Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Robert M. Vernail, who was recently selected to handle his office's gang-related prosecutions and to work with law enforcement officials across Northern Virginia in an effort to curb the region's growing gang problem. Vernail, 38, is filling one of five new assistant prosecutor positions created by the state specifically to target gangs.
"If we can stop people from being recruited into gangs, de-glamorize the gang lifestyle and show young people there are alternatives, you can reduce the number of gang members," said Leesburg Police Chief Joseph R. Price, whose department also is pushing gang-prevention efforts, including public service announcements and a brochure that will be distributed in schools.
"If the criminal enterprise doesn't have members, they're not going to be as strong as they once were," he said.
Carver said that although police officers can point to arrests and other statistics to demonstrate progress against gangs, it will take at least a year for GRIT's effects to be felt throughout the community. In some ways, he said, the ultimate success stories involve the at-risk youngsters who never enter the juvenile justice system.
"I think we've got a real opportunity to keep younger kids from being involved in gang activity and help the older population if they want to get out of a gang," Carver said. "If we fail to do our job, then they end up going down the law enforcement path."