YEARS AGO WHEN Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) first warned that gang violence was on the verge of booming in this region, state and local officials barely stirred, as if they believed that such problems were restricted to Los Angeles and maybe New York. Not until a series of grisly incidents this year -- including a machete-hacking of a 16-year-old boy near Alexandria, and the gunning-down of a 17-year-old in Herndon six days later -- did elected officials begin to react in earnest. And then some:
Suddenly Mr. Wolf's calls for a coordinated effort to combat the gang problem took hold with a vengeance -- infusions of money, task forces galore and, as The Post's David Cho reported this month, much overlap in the missions. Today at least four gang task forces operate in Virginia. In addition to the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force established by Mr. Wolf, there is the Anti-Gang Task Force set up by Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R), the Virginia State Police gang "strike force" started by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and the Coordinating Council on Gang Prevention. The council was initiated by Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), who at the time did not know about the other initiatives.
The accent of these programs is on dissuading children from joining gangs, which should be an important part of the effort, but missing so far is any increase in the number of officers to concentrate on gang recruitment and activities. Detectives who are doing this work point out that they are swamped. In Fairfax County alone, authorities report that the number of cases increased over the past two years from 45 incidents per month to 125.
The gang violence respects no jurisdictional boundaries. Prince George's and Montgomery county executives have been holding task force meetings, and Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D) started a Gang Intervention and Prevention Partnership. Existing police gang forces in the region are improving at pooling their information, but the gangs move quickly and turf wars are only part of their activities: They are moving into the drug market, prostitution, extortion and other areas.
Intelligence and law enforcement must be beefed up, but teachers, counselors and parents are key in discouraging gang membership. Peer pressure in schools to join gangs is severe, often menacing. At a regional conference attended by nearly 400 school and security personnel last Wednesday, officials stressed a need for more alternatives to gang activity, especially in middle schools. In addition, more teachers and volunteer mentors must learn to spot gang activity and interact with gang members, to point out the dangers of gang life and to let students know where to seek help if they are being recruited.
Given the dimensions of the problem, state, local and District officials cannot afford to waste money and time tripping over each other's redundant efforts to get a grip on gangs.