- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 23, 2009

CITIZEN JOURNALISM:

On the evening of the 65th anniversary of D-Day, a watchful full moon illuminates the Silver Spring Metro station, where “Ghost,” 24, of Langley Park, interacts with passersby and lets them know that he has “nicks goin’ quick.”

While he openly hustles $5 bags of marijuana, or “nicks,” he downplays Montgomery County’s gang activity.

Montgomery County has only “Faker Bloods. Fake Crips. Just unorganized wannabes. The only thing serious is MS-13. Nothing else - wannabes. Trying too hard,” says Ghost, who asked that his full name not be used.

With more than a half dozen visible tattoos, he says that whenever the police see him, they will automatically operate under the assumption that he is gang-affiliated.



“Some gang members don’t have typical identification markers. You won’t know they’re a gang member until they bust your head in and throw up that sign,” Ghost says.

He insists that he is not in a gang and doesn’t “gang-bang.” Instead, he “mobs” - or hustles - with a large but loose group of what he termed as “islanders.”

As certain areas of Montgomery County have undergone the transformation from rural to predominantly urbanized suburbs of the District, problems historically associated with inner-city life have moved beyond their traditional boundaries.

On June 1, Montgomery County’s elected officials announced the appointment of Victor DelPino as the new chief of the county’s gang-prosecution unit in the State’s Attorney’s Office.

Mr. DelPino, 33, a Silver Spring native, began working with the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office five years ago and was a member of the first gang-prosecution unit in Maryland when that agency announced the creation of a gang task force in 2007.

The unit is in place to attack the issue of gang activity “proactively,” and has been instrumental in “training prosecutors to handle [gang] cases appropriately,” Mr. DelPino said. His immediate staff consists of five prosecutors and three investigators.

Becoming the first Hispanic to lead a trial unit in county history, Mr. DelPino wants to make it clear that gang activity is not isolated to one particular ethnic group or national origin.

The diversity of Montgomery County is reflected in the diversity that county police see in gang membership, Mr. DelPino said.

In Montgomery County, gangs can have a “multicultural membership” that is rarely seen in other parts of the country, Mr. DelPino said.

He acknowledged that county law enforcement has seen the growth of local Bloods, who use the same name and brand as the gang started in Los Angeles, but there has not been any evidence to support a linkage between localized sets and the larger national organization.

Mr. DelPino acknowledged the sensitivity of branding a certain individual or group of individuals as being gang-affiliated. The county has an intense validation process to verify active gang members, and acknowledges that his office “takes it very serious.”

“Before we mention ‘gang’ in open court, we make sure the validation process is correct,” he said.

Mr. DelPino’s office is actively reaching out to members of the community and speaking at schools and public hearings. The objective of his office is to “develop a unified front within the county, because everyone is on the same team, with the same goal. We want kids to not join gangs, to have alternatives, and ultimately be successful.”

According to county police, 5 percent of all county crime is gang-related. The county has about 40 active gangs and 1,150 gang members of all backgrounds, according to the state’s attorney’s Web site.

Montgomery County initially began tracking gang activity in 1992 with a “gang intelligence” database.

Last November’s shooting death of a 14-year-old high school freshman on a Ride-On-Bus in Silver Spring and the stabbing death of a 15-year-old in Gaithersburg’s Malcolm King Park in January reminded county officials that, despite the additional prosecutorial and prevention resources they have developed, the county does have a gang problem that poses a threat to public safety for all county residents, according to several county officials.

A March report by Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger states, “Our gang investigators were very busy in 2008. Although overall gang-related crime was down for 2008, burglaries and robberies were up significantly.”

The report states that “the Central Business Districts of Silver Spring and Wheaton have a disproportionate amount of robberies and aggravated assaults.”

According to the state’s attorney’s office, the county has an “‘all crimes’ approach” to gang activity, from trespassing offenses to homicide. If committed by a known gang member, the crime is tracked by Mr. DelPino’s office. Since the creation of the gang-prosecution task force in 2007, Montgomery County has prosecuted nearly 1,000 gang-related offenses, although a single individual can account for multiple offenses.

Mr. DelPino said that although gang activity has been documented in all police districts in the county, certain areas of the county have a greater concentration of gang activity . In these areas, he explained, “We are seeing recruitment at an early age, and county residents have shared their great concern when seeing older kids hanging out at elementary schools.”

“It is important we recognize that there are more kids in-county doing well, being of benefit to society than those who are detrimental,” Mr. DelPino said.

Ashley Peters, 17, who grew up near First and Kennedy streets in Northwest Washington, is currently a student at Wheaton Senior High School. She is not in a gang, but thinks “the police set a certain image on all teens that all of us are no good and in gangs, which is not true.”

Ashley concedes she did not think there was crime in the suburbs “until I moved to Wheaton, where I have witnessed innocent citizens robbed on the bus for iPods and cell phones.”

She now says, “Everywhere, never let your guard down.”

First-term Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich, who taught for more than 15 years at Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Takoma Park, sees the county’s dedication of resources toward gang prevention as a smaller element of the broader countywide effort to advance positive youth development.

Montgomery County’s approach to gang prevention and youth development has changed, Mr. Elrich said.

“People are finally acknowledging there is a gang issue. We spent a lot of time avoiding the reality,” he said. “You can’t develop programming if you don’t acknowledge the problem.”

Currently, Mr. Elrich said, he is working to create a countywide coalition that brings together after-school programming and consolidates services in an effort to maximize the effectiveness of appropriate services on youth development.

He said the county needs more educational alternatives to discourage youths from turning to the streets.

Mr. Elrich and his staff are also working on an effective evaluation process because he said he recognizes that money is not unlimited. His office is focused on positive youth development, as eliminating gangs from the county will “not solve all of our concerns about safety and juvenile crime.”

He said he wants to ensure the county does not lose focus on youths “not involved with gangs.” All initiatives are aimed at providing opportunities for young adults to improve their quality of life and that of their families and communities, he said.

Although born in the United States, “Ghost” spent his childhood on a Caribbean island, where he says “hustling” - starting with selling marijuana - was a family tradition he quickly learned.

So what does “Ghost” think of the county’s increased efforts to prosecute what is perceived as gang-related crime? “Courts just smash your head,” he said. “They throw the book at you and call it doing something. That is what they call rehabilitation.”

• John Muller is a writer living in Montgomery County.

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