At a Town Hall on Gangs hosted by Mason Supervisor Penny Gross March 29, Police Chief Edwin Roessler urged the community to “get engaged.” Parents need to look over the shoulder of students, especially middle schoolers, and be aware of what they’re doing online, he said.
“Gangs are not overt any more. The colors and clothing are not as apparent,” Gross said. “Gang members are using social media now. The messages are horrifying and hard to track.”
Community concern about gangs has been heightened following the discovery of two bodies in Holmes Run Stream Valley Park in February. That follows the discovery of two bodies in the same park in 2014. Several gang members had been convicted of homicide in connection with that incident.
“That upsets me,” said Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler, a former commander of the Mason Police District, about the latest discovery. “We cannot tolerate that. Although it’s gang-on-gang violence, this is happening in public spaces.”
A surge of gang incidents
Police have identified 35 gangs active in Fairfax County, said Det. Ken Compher of the gang unit, and six of them have national or international ties: MS 13, 18th Street Gang, Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, and Folk Nation.
Every police district in the county has experienced an increase in gang activity in 2016, Compher said. The Mason Police district had 401 incidents in 2016, a 32 percent increase from the previous year.
For Fairfax County as a whole, there were 1,309 incidents last year. Broken down by the seven main gangs, there were 558 incidents involving MS 13 in 2016 (a 70 percent increase from 2015), 98 involving South Side Locos (68 percent), 231 Crips incidents (66 percent), 205 involving the Bloods (62 percent), 151 with the 18th Street gang (57 percent), 36 involving Folk Nation (50 percent), and 30 incidents involving the Latin Kings (20 percent).
According to Capt. Paul Cleveland, head of the FCPD gang unit, a lot of that increase is due to increased public awareness, which has resulted in people more likely to report suspected gang activities.
He said FPCD has identified about 3,000 gang members in Fairfax County.
Jay Lanham, head of the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, said he’s seeing an increase in gun trafficking, sex trafficking, and extortion. Most alarming is the increase in violent crime by juveniles.
Gang members are of all races and ethnicities; they come from Section 8 housing along Route 1 to million-dollar houses in McLean and everything in between, added Ed Ryan, of the Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
“We need to understand this problem is not isolated to Fairfax County. It’s a regional problem,” said Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler, a former commander of the Mason Police District.
Despite those statistics, Fairfax County is still one of the safest places to live in the country,” Compher said. There are only 15 murders or so a year, which is “astronomically low” in a population of over 1 million.
Signs of gang involvement
The FCPD gang unit does a lot of training sessions – for police, school resource officers, teachers, probation officers, civic groups, businesses, and PTAs – on basic gang awareness, how to be vigilant, and trends in gangs.
Compher listed some common indicators that children might be involved in gangs: wearing specific clothing or colors; changes in appearance, such as shaving their eyebrows; communicating with their hands; writing gang signs on notebooks; a drop in grades; skipping school; staying out all night; and having weapons.
Parents should be alert for changes in attitude, Cleveland added, such as not wanting to do things with family, changing friends, and having unexpected money and possessions.
Youths join gangs because “something is missing in their home environment and they feel a need to belong to something,” said Ryan.
He gets requests to talk to kids at risk of joining a gang, even elementary school students, as gangs are beginning to recruit at that level. That’s when children begin to be more influenced by their peers than their parents.
Kids who are having a hard time making friends and are not excelling academically or in sports are more at risk, Ryan says. His office also targets unaccompanied minors – youths who came to the United States without their parents – as that population is particularly vulnerable to gang recruiters.
When kids start disengaging from school, hanging out with older kids, and bringing weapons to school, “it’s only a matter of time before they put themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.
Fairfax County Public Schools educates teachers, staff, administrators, and parents about gangs and prevention strategies. Administrators are trained in how to conduct investigations if they suspect a student is involved in a gang.
“Be vigilant in your neighborhood. Report suspicious activity,” Cleveland advised the audience. “If anyone in your family is threatened, report it to the police immediately.” And if you see graffiti, an unfamiliar group in a park, or people parking on your street and walking to a park, the police want to know about that.
Gang graffiti is usually about marking territory, he said. If graffiti is Xed out, it could mean one gang is in conflict with another.
Community involvement is critical, as is teamwork and collaboration, said Dave Rohrer, deputy county executive for public safety and former chief of police. “Our job is to maintain a safe community,” he said. But, “if you are afraid to walk to the grocery store, to go to the park, or let your children play, we lost.”
“Don’t assume the police know everything,” he said, noting that tips can be submitted anonymously.
Rather than arrest one or two gang members at a time for minor offenses, leading to a six-month or one-year sentence, Cleveland said, the police are focusing on taking down an entire group, using the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute.
That takes time, typically it’s a two-year investigation, Cleveland said. But the result is often a 20-year to life sentence.
According to Cleveland, gang members used Holmes Run Stream Valley Park for meetings and burials because it’s dark and there’s lots of tree cover. He suggested making the area safer by adding lighting and clearing out some of the foliage.
Gross said she plans to meet with Park Authority Director Kirk Kincannon, the police, and other county staff to improve security in the park. “We want to maintain our wild natural places inside the beltway, but we also need to make them unattractive for criminals,” she said.
In the meantime, police bike units will regularly patrol the trails, and Gross plans to consider efforts to improve cell phone service in the park.
One effective gang-prevention solution is after-school, summer, and drop-in programs that keep youths engaged in positive activities, said Elisa Lueck, of the Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood and Community Services.
Gangs have been around the area for years, as have efforts to curb them and divert youths into after-school programs, Gross said.
“We know what kinds of programs work,” she said; the problem is a lack of funding, and thus, a lack of capacity to serve all youths who could benefit from these programs.