Learning about Street Gangs

Learning about Street Gangs

“Sully is quieter than the other districts.”

— Criminal street gangs crave nothing more than attention, notoriety and power.

“We don’t focus on just race or clothing. Gang members can come from any region of the country or any socioeconomic class.”

— Det. Keith Baker, Gang Investigations Unit

They want other gangs to fear them and, often, they leave public graffiti as their calling card, to mark their territory or to send a message to rival gangs.

But knowing this, Fairfax County police have always had a policy of washing off or painting over gang graffiti as soon as it’s discovered. They also make a concerted effort not to advertise the gangs by using their specific names in public.

There are some 14 gangs in this county, including the Fair Oaks and Sully districts.

Sgt. Merrit Cassell with the Gang Intelligence Unit and Det. Keith Baker with the Gang Investigations Unit both addressed a recent meeting of the Sully District Police Station’s Citizens Advisory Committee. They also noted that, when it comes to gang activity, “Sully is quieter than the other districts.”

“Gangs want to make a name for themselves and people to be scared of them,” said Baker. “All their leadership is in prison in Central America, but they run the prisons there, have phones and give people here their orders. They also tell people there what to do when they get here.”

Gangs often try to recruit new members from schools, particularly middle schools. But they try to do so under the radar and not bring unwanted attention to their efforts. Said Cassell: “They don’t want to get caught by the police and be in trouble.”

He was born in El Salvador, but came to the U.S. when he was 5 or 6. “El Salvador is very turbulent,” he said. “A lot of people initially come here to escape a war-torn country. Kids, 12-17 years old, see a lot of stuff here that they didn’t grow up with. At home, they were seeing gang wars and dead bodies on a daily basis. So when a 12-year-old boy comes here, he may already have the mentality of a 23-year-old, hardened, savvy person who may have already killed two people and seen a lot of violence.”

“They don’t need papers or visas to cross the border because they’re juveniles — or say they are,” added Baker, But, he stressed, “Not every kid from there does [gang activity] here — it’s a small percentage.”

To determine whether a person has a possible gang connection, he said, “We don’t focus on just race or clothing. Gang members can come from any region of the country or any socioeconomic class.”

Fairfax County’s gang unit was formed in 1993 and began the next year with three members. It now has 10 detectives and two supervisors. “We gather intelligence and pass it on to other officers and investigative entities,” said Baker. “We assist local, state and federal agencies and share information.”

He said a criminal street gang is defined as having three or more people, with a sign or symbol, involved with criminal activity. In addition, each member has committed two or more crimes, with at least one of them being an act of violence. Then, if caught, police can charge them with criminal gang participation.

“There are more than 100 identified gangs in the National Capital Region, with some 2,000-3,000 gang-associated people living here,” said Baker. He also noted that the number of gang-related crimes in this county rose from 1,338 in 2015 to 2,056 in 2016 — an increase of 65 percent. And, he said, “Most of them stem from drug-related incidents.”

However, added Cassell, “They sometimes do crimes having nothing to do with a gang, such as hitting a girlfriend. So it would be a gang-related incident, but not gang-motivated. And the above numbers reflect both types of offenses.”

He said individual gangs identify themselves by their particular type of graffiti, hand signs, drawings, tattoos, weapons and style of dress. But, said Cassell, “Nowadays, they’re not wearing certain colors like they used to, so it’s harder to identify them.”

Their graffiti does provide some information, though. “It tells you what gangs are in an area or are claiming an area as their turf,” said Cassell. “It also indicates what gangs are fighting, arguing or have a beef with each other.”

As for their names, he explained, numbers in them are associated with their corresponding alphabet letters. Local gangs or crews have less members and no set chain of command. “They want to make names for themselves, are usually neighborhood- or school-specific and generally have younger members,” he said.

Cassell said signs that a person is involved in a gang include many things, such as withdrawing from their family and declining school performance and attendance. “They may also dress the same way all the time, or on specific days of the week, or wear certain attire,” he added. “Or they may refuse to wear certain colors of clothing. They often throw hand signs back and forth with other gang members to communicate with them, and every tattoo has a meaning.”

The National Gang Center advises parents to discourage their children from associating with gang members and to let them know that death or imprisonment is a very real possibility of their involvement. Parents should also get to know their children’s friends and their friends’ parents and should familiarize themselves with their children’s online activity and popular slang terms.

They’re also encouraged to discuss with their children ways to deal with pressure from friends. Also important is making time for the family to play, eat meals and take trip together, as well as holding family meetings where children may openly talk about their plans, feelings and complaints. For more information, go to www.nationalgangcenter.gov.