- The Washington Times - Friday, August 12, 2005

Faced with a growth in gang activity, Montgomery County Police have been compiling a database of pictures and names of suspected gang members, a practice some community leaders say could mistakenly label the innocent.

Montgomery police said there are 20 to 25 active gangs in the county, with more than 500 members. A 2004 joint report on gangs by Prince George’s and Montgomery counties noted a “steady increase in violent, well-organized gangs across the Washington area.”

Police believe the stabbing of six teenagers last week in two separate incidents was the work of the gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, described by federal authorities as one of the largest and most violent street gangs in the United States, with the majority of its members in the country illegally.

The gang has carried out beheadings and grenade attacks in Central America and had hacked enemies with machetes in cities along the East Coast in the United States.

All 12 persons arrested in the stabbings near a high school in Silver Spring and at a shopping mall in Wheaton are thought to be gang members.

Montgomery authorities have kept tabs on the group through its “gang intelligence” database for several years.

According to the report on gangs, officers entered more than 2,400 contacts with gang members and associates into the database between 2000 to 2004. That includes some who do not live in the county.

The county created a special gang unit in 2004, but had been tracking gang activity since 1992, according to Lt. Eric Burnett, a police spokesman.

Officers who work on gang issues are spread throughout the police districts. Part of their work includes gathering photographs, names, gang affiliations and other information on suspected gang members.

The information is taken from gang members who are arrested, are suspects in crimes, or from informants.

Crime involvement, reasonable suspicion, or probable cause to believe involvement in a crime are among reasons to take pictures and collect information, Lt. Burnett said.

“If someone’s picture is taken, they have been involved in a criminal act,” Lt. Burnett said. “We can’t arbitrarily take someone’s picture. We have to have a legitimate reason.”

Lt. Burnett said the pictures are not an invasion of privacy because people are asked for consent before their photo is taken.

The database has enabled detectives to look at surveillance videotapes and match the face with the names, he said.

One of the stabbing suspects, Santos Maximino Garcia, was identified from a photo shown to a witness, according to charging documents filed in his case. Police have not said if the Garcia photo was from the database.

Other suspects were identified through surveillance cameras at the crime scenes.

However, as with other undercover investigations, police sometimes take surveillance photos without the suspect’s knowledge, Lt. Burnett said.

That leads some community leaders to question the tactic of gathering information on people merely on suspicion, not hard evidence, that they may be gang members.

“Information collected under those standards are going to be garbage-in and garbage-out,” said Kim Propeack of the immigrant advocacy group Casa de Maryland. “I’m sure that the database is going to be filled with young kids who have been racially profiled.”

Police risk identifying youths as gang members simply because of the color of their clothing or other physical attributes, she said.

Montgomery County schools also have tried to identify gang members in the system, school spokesman Brian Edwards said.

One of the stabbings took place at Springbrook High School, and several students were implicated in the crime.

The schools have planned to place armed police officers in each of the 24 high schools, work with school security teams and try to get to know individual students.

The schools also are training teachers to identify and intervene in potential gang recruiting and activity.

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