The emergence of Latino gangs posed a challenge for Northern Virginia police in the mid- to late 1990s. Latino populations were growing, and gang violence was following.
At first, police departments such as Fairfax County's responded with standard law enforcement tactics: launching gang units, increasing patrols in troubled neighborhoods, suggesting to politicians that anti-gang laws might help. In Virginia, those laws, such as making it illegal to recruit juveniles into gangs, started landing on the books in 2000.
But police soon realized that law enforcement was only part of the solution. So departments began devising anti-gang programs that were not traditional police actions. They started working with local governments to use social and recreational resources to keep kids from joining or staying in gangs.
"The Police Department has been dealing with this issue longer and stronger than anyone else, in traditional roles," said Fairfax Lt. Col. Charles K. Peters, who helped launch a gang unit more than eight years ago. "That gives us an edge in knowledge. When a crime occurs, we're going to investigate it. But the long-term solution is going to need to be a decrease in gang involvement by youths."
Police in Arlington also recognized that they weren't going to conquer gangs alone. In 1997, the county launched a program, Gang Resistance Involving Parents, in which officers identify youths who appear to be heading toward trouble and encourage them to join after-school programs, such as sports leagues, Boy Scouts or church groups.
Officers in the Arlington gang unit have had success diverting youngsters to a boxing program at the Barcroft Sports and Fitness Center taught by former pro boxer Willie Taylor. His background gives him credibility with teenagers, Arlington Lt. Jim Wasem told The Washington Post last fall.
"We certainly don't want to train gang-bangers how to fight better," Wasem said. But, he added, "These are kids who need more structure and need something to occupy their time. We help the parents figure out how to give them that structure."
In Alexandria, police do not sponsor programs aimed solely at gang members or those at risk of joining a gang, but they do offer day camps. At the camps, and in the city's schools, officers teach ways to resist law-breaking behavior and discuss with youths what could happen if they join a gang.
In Fairfax, Peters said police had taken a leadership role in the anti-gang effort by pushing for the formation of the Coordinating Council on Gang Prevention, which initially was led by a police captain. In February, the county hired a former juvenile probation officer, Robert Bermingham, to survey programs and other options available for youths susceptible to gang overtures and devise prevention and intervention strategies.
Bermingham said Fairfax wasn't slow in responding to the gang problem. "I think we were slow in recognizing the things we had," he said.
Bermingham noted that in February police began working with juvenile and adult probation officers to focus on areas with high gang activity. The teams visit homes, teaching parents about indicators of gang involvement, and discuss where they can turn for help. This approach has been highly successful in areas with serious gang problems.
Fairfax is also including gang members in the "child-specific team" process, Bermingham said. The team brings a variety of people -- from the school system, the courts, social services, drug and alcohol services, and mental health and recreation programs -- to a table to focus on one young person and the programs that might help keep the youth out of trouble.
A similar program, called the Gang Response Intervention Team, exists in Loudoun County, Sheriff's Office spokesman Kraig Troxell said. Representatives of social agencies, the courts, the Sheriff's Office and the commonwealth's attorney's office meet.
Loudoun sheriff's deputies also plan to begin using the Gang Resistance Education and Training Program in schools soon, Troxell said. The program is an educational presentation made by deputies in middle schools. Troxell said the Drug Abuse Resistance and Education program, or DARE, also is useful as an anti-gang tool because it teaches kids how to resist peer pressure.
Fairfax police are discarding the GREAT program this year in favor of another anti-gang program, Healthy Choices. Bermingham said the class will be taught in middle school health and physical education programs by an officer and a teacher and will last about a month. He said the GREAT program was not being widely used because it took 13 weeks.
Peters said Fairfax police commanders have instructed the eight patrol stations to devise anti-gang initiatives, such as foot patrols and road checks in troubled areas.
At the West Springfield station, police this month sponsored a week-long "Road Dawg" camp for middle-schoolers from troubled neighborhoods, talking about self-esteem and helping them see how officers do their jobs. One station puts on a soccer camp; another sponsors a movie night.
"Every officer's a gang officer," Peters said. "We're not just relying on headquarters to tell people what to do. They're all just pieces of a solution."
Staff writer Jamie Stockwell contributed to this report.