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In Newport News, police focus on high-profile members, prevention to address gang problem

A recent spike in youth violence and perceived gang crime has generated calls for action to take criminals off the streets.

At a forum in June that brought together leaders and experts from Newport News and Hampton, officials said targeting gang members is a priority, in addition to tackling youth violence not necessarily tied to gangs.

In Newport News, there are close to 50 identified gangs with about 1,200 members, according to Sgt. L.W. Spencer, supervisor of the Newport News Police Department's Organized Crime Division and Gang Enforcement Unit.

Spencer said investigators have identified pockets of gang strongholds across the city, even as efforts are focused more heavily on the Southeast section of Newport News.

Police said a rash of shootings earlier this year, including two that killed church deacons, could have gang connections. But Spencer said the department will not classify a shooting as gang-related unless either the victim or shooter is an active gang member. Suspect details have not been released in either of the two homicides, Spencer said, so those cases are not yet labeled as gang-related.

But the spike in shootings caught the attention of city officials, prompting a $1.1 million-dollar anti-gang initiative that was announced in April. The program targets about 200 members of four recognized gangs in the Southeast section of the city.

Spencer said the Police Department does not yet have data to report on the number of shootings this year that have been classified as gang-related, but he estimates about half of the shootings last year had gang ties.

The rise of local gangs

Combating gang violence has become a growing priority for Newport News as the culture of gangs has changed over about the last 16 years, Spencer said.

Before the late 1990s, local gangs existed, but they were mostly not connected with larger, nationally recognized groups, like the rival Bloods or Crips, he said. Those groups started forming in Hampton Roads after local people connected with gang members, primarily from New York, while in prison, he said. That brought the problem back to local streets.

"It's kind of blown up over here on the East Coast," he said. "The correctional facility is a breeding ground."

In the early 2000s, when the Rashko children started interacting with local gang members, Spencer said the Police Department handled gangs differently than they do today. He said the department did not have in place the connections it now has with local church groups, the Department of Human Services, the Boys and Girls Club and other agencies to attempt to prevent children from getting involved.

He said the task was sometimes a challenge for officers because you can't punish a person for simply being in a gang.

"It's not against the law to be a gang member," he said.

Over the last few years, Spencer said, the city and police have done a better job of connecting at-risk youths with services to take the task of prevention out of officers' hands.

"I think for many years we were trying to wear all the hats as one," he said. "The city's made tremendous steps…we're starting to get those pieces in place."

Spencer said police can now concentrate on finding people who lead the gangs.

"Our main focus is getting the most violent people off the street," he said.

Spencer described the gang structure as military-like, with leaders acting as officers giving orders down the line to "foot soldiers" who participate in crimes from theft to dealing drugs to murder.

Spencer said efforts to stop gangs will improve when people realize that the problem is not just one for police to handle, but a "society problem." He said residents can help by simply reporting suspicious activity.

"We need eyes and ears throughout the community," he said.

Pawlowski can be reached by phone at 757-247-7478.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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