Police officials in Virginia, aware that publicity-hungry gangs thrive on seeing their names in the paper, for years have avoided publicly naming gangs. But the problem with gangs has grown to such a degree that police said yesterday that policy has to change.
“The number one impediment to effective gang enforcement is denial. For various political reasons, it exists. It exists in this state and all over the country,” said Sgt. Greg Smith of for the Fairfax County police gang unit.
“What you’re seeing in Fairfax is an ending of that denial,” he said, adding that the need to educate the public about gangs and their activities must always “trump” any concern that gangs will be encouraged by hearing or reading about themselves in the press.
Sgt. Smith and the Fairfax gang unit met with Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore at Mr. Kilgore’s request yesterday. Mr. Kilgore wanted to discuss the gang problem in the wake of two violent gang-related incidents in the past week. Police think the Mara Salvatrucha gang, or MS-13, is responsible for both crimes. MS-13 is the largest gang in Northern Virginia.
Several MS-13 members, including one with a machete, attacked a 16-year-old boy on May 10, severing four of his fingers and maiming his hands. Police said the youth is a member of a rival gang, the Southside Locos. Fairfax County police arrested an 18-year old Annandale man in connection with that attack.
On Sunday night, a 17-year old Herndon boy was fatally shot by men who police think are members of MS-13. A 16-year-old girl also was wounded in the attack and is in stable condition at Reston Hospital Center.
Sgt. Jerry Keys, a spokesman for Herndon police, said that no arrests had been made in the fatal shooting as of last night, but that the investigation is continuing. Sgt. Keys said Herndon police have a policy of not naming gangs suspected of crimes. Prince William County police have a similar policy.
“We haven’t in the past, strictly because we’ve always felt that gives them notoriety and builds their image. So we’ve said, ‘We’ll put your name out when we arrest you, but we’re not going to put your name in the paper and help you with recruiting,’” Sgt. Keys said. “As of late, there’s been some changes in thinking, that maybe it’s a good thing.”
Mr. Kilgore’s meeting was the first of two meetings on gangs in Fairfax this week. Tomorrow, Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, will announce the provision of more federal funds to fight gangs in Northern Virginia and in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.
Mr. Wolf already has procured about $2 million in the past two years to create and fund the 10th Congressional District Gang Task Force, which includes several local jurisdictions.
Mr. Wolf will make the announcement with Paul J. McNulty, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, John Brownlee, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, and representatives from the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, U.S. Marshals Service and the 10th Congressional District Gang Task Force.
Mr. Kilgore intends to form a prosecutorial task force, similar to the one formed among law-enforcement agencies, to tackle the gang issue. County, state and federal prosecutors will collaborate to determine where best to prosecute gang members accused of crimes.
Multijurisdictional grand juries are also an option because gang members are mobile and commit crimes in multiple localities, Mr. Kilgore said. He is traveling to Richmond today, and to Roanoke, Abingdon and Danville in the next week to promote awareness of the growing gang problem.
“I’ve been stunned over the last week at the level of gang activity,” Mr. Kilgore said. “The violence that’s been exploding in this area — it’s alarmed everyone in the state.”
However, Sgt. Smith said the violence is nothing new, and he’s relieved that the public has begun to pay attention to gangs.
“We’ve been dealing with this for years. It’s finally beginning to get out there. We have shootings all the time. This time it hit the target. We have machete attacks all the time,” Sgt. Smith said.
Even as Fairfax police become more aggressive in publicly naming gangs and gang activity, there is still tension within the department on the issue, said Mary Ann Jennings, a spokeswoman for the Fairfax County police.
“There is a constant battle within the police department about naming particular gangs. Some in the police department feel that any mention of a specific gang gives that gang what they’re looking for,” Ms. Jennings said.
“I’ve never been a big stakeholder in that theory,” Sgt. Smith said. “It does nobody any good not to name Mara Salvatrucha.”
MS-13 is thought to have about 3,000 members in the Washington area, and Northern Virginia is the gang’s main hub on the East Coast, according to FBI documents. Fairfax police estimate there are about 4,300 gang members in Northern Virginia.
Besides not wanting to give gangs publicity, police and lawmakers have been hesitant to acknowledge them because they didn’t want to alarm the public and they have sometimes underestimated gangs as “a bunch of kids,” said Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Mr. Kilgore.
Mr. Kilgore and Sgt. Smith said more family and community involvement in children’s lives is needed.
“Parents have to be activists,” Mr. Kilgore said. “The parents have failed to see the signs of gang activity.”
Elmer Arias, a restaurant owner and the president of United Salvadoran American Civic Committee, a community group, agreed.
“I believe if you had the parents more involved with the kids, they would have more control of their kids,” he said. “It’s sad. They’re fighting for no reason.”