Wednesday, April 30, 2008

When is a gang not a gang? When it’s based in the District.

D.C. officials insist on describing groups of young males as “crews,” rather than gangs, even when they are held responsible for violent acts such as the wave of killings in the city last weekend. But police officials in other cities say the distinction is counterproductive.

“The very first step in dealing with gangs is denial,” said Capt. Charles Bloom of the Philadelphia Police Department. “Then you get to the point that you can’t deny it any more.”

D.C. police, lawmakers and community activists say the groups are not gangs because their members are mostly teens who band together for personal protection. That, they say, distinguished them from conventional gangs, which are created for a criminal enterprise such as drug dealing.

Capt. Bloom said Philadelphia quit trying to make such distinctions two years ago. Although they once described such bands as “loose groups,” they now use the term “gang-related” for any group that engages in criminal violence.

Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier acknowledged this week that crews appear to be connected to some of the 10 homicides in the past two weeks — including four this past weekend. And they are connected to hundreds of shots fired and a dozen shootings late last year in the Columbia Heights neighborhood in Northwest, officials say.

“There seem to be several street crews that are feuding,” said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, who heads the council’s public safety committee. “On the one hand, that means it’s not random; but on the other hand, it’s an intolerable level of violence.”

Other large U.S. police departments also say they classify such groups as gangs — not crews — if they are engaged in any type of crime.

“In our law, we don’t have crews,” said Sgt. Wilfred Williams of the San Francisco Police Department. “We prosecute gangs, not crews.”

Chicago recently experienced a similar crime wave, with nine people killed in 36 shootings last weekend. Police said at least 14 of the shootings were gang-related.

Though much larger than the eight shootings this past weekend in the District, Chicago officials said the shootings involved young males who were 18 to 25 years old.

“The term ‘crews’ has never come up here,” Officer Marcel Bright of the Chicago Police Department said yesterday.

Spokespersons for Baltimore and Los Angeles police departments made similar statements.

A Los Angeles police sergeant said the department uses the term crew to refer to a small group of gang members who commit a crime but does not use the term to describe independent groups.

Chief Lanier also said yesterday that the 1,200 officers whom she put on patrol — three times the normal number — after the weekend shootings will remain on duty for the rest of the week.

She said that she would not alter her All Hands on Deck initiative during which the entire 4,000-officer department works patrol shifts of three-day periods.

Police said there have been no arrests in the weekend shootings but identified Melvin R. Seals of the 4600 block of Foote Street Northeast as the victim of a shooting Saturday at Morse Street and Montello Avenue Northeast.

As of yesterday, the District had 50 homicides, just one fewer than at the same time last year, according to numbers from the department.

Seventeen of the killings have been in the Fifth District, which is double the number at this time last year.

Sterling Meyers and Gary Emerling contributed to this report.

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