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Area police target gang activity

Sunday, October 3, 2010

By AMANDA BUCK - Bulletin Staff Writer

Local law enforcement officials are taking new steps to fight the growing problem of gang activity in Henry County and Martinsville.

An informal task force of local, state and federal officials has begun meeting to address the issue, according to Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry. It is in response to a growing gang presence during the last several years that now is related to a majority of violent crime in the county, Perry said.

"I would say pretty confidently that two-thirds of violent crime (in Henry County) now is linking back to gang activity," he said.

The informal group, which began meeting a few months ago, is made up of representatives of local law enforcement, the Virginia State Police, the FBI, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Department of Corrections, Perry said.

It is one of several ways in which his department is stepping up its efforts to fight the gang problem, he said.

"We're trying to take every avenue we can to get information (about gangs) and keep track of what's going on," Perry said.

Martinsville Police Chief Mike Rogers said his department also is involved in the group, which he said has not yet developed into an official task force, such as one established to fight gangs in Lynchburg and Danville. Because resources are limited, Rogers said he believes state and federal officials are first focusing on cities that have the biggest gang problems.

However, he predicted this area might one day be on that list.

Gang violence is "coming to every town and city and county in this state, and it has to be addressed," Rogers said.

The county announced last week that the sheriff's office has received a federal grant to fund three positions, including a gang coordinator. Perry said he has had an officer heading up those efforts for two or three months while handling other duties as well.

The grant will allow the office to devote an officer to the position full time, said Major Steve Eanes.

"The primary job description is monitoring and collecting information (about gang activity), relaying that and making sure how we can best use our resources ... to fight gangs," Perry said.

Eanes said gang activity could include "a group of neighborhood boys getting together" for vandalism as well as groups with ties to national gangs, such as the Bloods and the Crips. The gang coordinator will work to determine which is happening locally, he said.

All of the supervisors in the sheriff's office are working with the officer who is spearheading gang investigations, Perry said. He declined to name the person because of the nature of his work.

Rogers said he has assigned two investigators to spearhead his department's anti-gang efforts. Those officers are members of the Virginia Gang Investigators Association and have taken part in several training sessions on the issue, he said.

There are several ways to collect information about gangs, Perry said. Some suspects admit being involved in a gang, he said. In addition, jail officials watch for tattoos associated with gangs and other "observed behavior" as part of their investigations, the sheriff said.

"Now when people come in (to the jail), pictures are taken" of any tattoos, he said. "Even if they don't admit gang activity, their tattoos sometimes tell a different story."�

Prison officials have been aware of tattoos as gang signs for years, he added.

Rogers said city jail officials also pay attention to tattoos, as well as manner of dress and other potential gang signals.

Perry and Rogers said all of their officers receive basic training in how to recognize signs of gang activity. Perry added that whenever a violent crime occurs, investigators "want to find out if it has ties to gangs right away."�

The department will work to track how many gang-related crimes are occurring, Perry said. Neither he nor Rogers had specific figures on gang-related crimes last week.

"It's hard to put a definitive number" on gang-related crime, Perry said. "The last three or four years, the bulk of violent crime and drug activity ... are more controlled by the gangs, and more violence that occurs here is because of gang motives."�

He cited robbery, drive-by shootings, attempted murder and murder as violent crimes often associated with gangs. He declined to name specific cases he believes are associated with gangs, but in the past he has said a January shooting death at the intersection of Irisburg and Axton roads and the May slaying of a store clerk at BG's Express #2 were suspected of being gang related.

Drug crimes also often are gang-related, he said.

"We are seeing gangs try to take over the drug trade. They try to control the market," Perry said. He said he couldn't guess at a percentage of drug crimes now related to gang activity.

Rogers said he feels "very good" about the city's efforts to fight gangs, but he also hopes resources will become available to establish a formal gang task force to which officers could be assigned full-time. That would be "a proactive measure that would help us hopefully stay on top of it," he said.

Perry said he already is seeing progress in his office's fight against gangs.

"We are seeing an effectiveness from our efforts, (such as) investigations moving forward and some arrests" being made, he said.

Perry and Rogers also said their offices are open to working with federal prosecutors to bring charges of gang-related crime in federal courts, where penalties often are stiffer.


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