Shamaar Guess is sure he sees evidence of criminal gangs marking their turf in Edgewood: the red bandanas dangling from former classmates' jeans, a middle-school girl displaying a bullet casing to prove she was a "Blood."
"You have those that do it as intimidation: 'If you mess with me, you mess with my gang members as well,'" said Guess, whose father, Derald Howard Guess, 37, was killed in his taxicab last month in what police and family members suspect was a gang-initiation rite.
Dozens of young people have joined home-grown gangs in Harford County in recent years, their dealings largely confined to the illegal drug trade, police said. While far less of a presence than gangs in cities such as Los Angeles, the Harford gangs are causing alarm locally as they grow and become more organized.
Last week, Harford County Sheriff R. Thomas Golding unveiled a countywide anti-gang initiative, drawing on local law enforcement and school officials in an effort to squelch gang activity before it becomes a widespread problem.
"I don't think we've seen anything we would characterize as gang warfare," said Golding, whose department began working on the initiative a year ago, after narcotics officers started noticing signs of gang activity. "But they're recruiting, and we want to put a stop to that as soon as possible."
The local gangs often are led by young men resettling from New York, Philadelphia or other urban areas, police say. More than 50 members have been identified and linked to crimes in Edgewood, Aberdeen and other eastern areas in the past 18 months, most of them teenagers imitating well-known gangs. Other identified gang members are incarcerated or awaiting trial, Golding said.
Police have linked gangs to numerous stabbings and shootings in the same time period. Investigators also have found gang graffiti and typed gang rules for recruits, said Sgt. Lee D. Dunbar.
To fight back, the sheriff's office plans to double the size of an anti-gang team to eight deputies. Sheriff's deputies also will hold public seminars on how to spot and report gang activity. And the county likely will appeal to federal and state agencies for grants available to local police departments.
County Councilman Robert G. Cassilly has urged County Executive James M. Harkins to increase police funding in his budget proposal so that more officers can be added to combat gangs.
"One of the things the sheriff is always asking for is additional deputies, and this pushes that need even higher on the list," said John J. O'Neill, the county's director of administration.
Police also will draw resources from the Harford County school system, which forbids students to wear bandannas or gang-affiliated clothing.
A county committee will study new legislation, such as nuisance ordinances and a daytime juvenile curfew.
The county initiative piggybacks on a national campaign to combat gangs. Last month, the federal government approved $48.6 million in anti-gang initiatives, including a national gang-intelligence center to be run by the FBI. The sheriff's office said it is working with out-of-state police departments. Last week, several deputies spent three days with anti-gang police units in Brooklyn, N.Y., Dunbar said. The office also is working with police agencies in Prince George's and Montgomery counties and in Alexandria, Va. Police have identified local gang members who moved to the area from Alexandria, Va., and belong to the gang MS-13.
Since Guess' death Dec. 8, authorities have been investigating a gang connection. One of two suspects arrested in the killing, Wayne Lavon Bond Jr., 17, of Edgewood, has been identified by police as an affiliate of the gang 9 Tre Gangsta.
Shamaar Guess said he knew people in gangs when his family lived in Philadelphia. He saw the same gang trappings at Joppatowne High three years ago.
People he knew in Harford started calling themselves Bloods or Crips, after nationally known gangs of the same names. They began wearing red or blue bandannas - depending on their affiliation - on their heads or tied to the belt loops of their jeans.
To some teens, the "flags" symbolize machismo, Shamaar Guess said.
He said one friend in Harford County confessed to a robbery committed by another gang member - and served time in juvenile detention - as part of an initiation rite.
Shamaar Guess' sister, Michelle N. Guess, also had friends who began selling drugs and identifying themselves as Bloods.
"They kept telling me ... they need fast money and they need protection," said Michelle Guess, who graduated from Joppatowne High last spring. "They almost felt like there's no hope for them, and that's their family."