Carroll County officials acknowledge that the county has a gang problem that has involved the Crips, the Bloods, MS-13 and Vatos Locos.
Gang incidents have been largely intertwined with expanding illegal drug operations in the county during the last few years, officials said.
"They're very much interrelated," said Jennifer L. Darby, a senior assistant state's attorney for the county. "Not every drug dealer is a gang member; not every gang member is a drug dealer. But they do go hand in hand."
To curb the problem, a Carroll County task force has applied for a state grant to assess the level of gang activity in the county and formulate a plan to prevent such groups from expanding.
As gang-related crime has surfaced, primarily in Westminster, Taneytown and Hampstead, officials from the state's attorney's office and other county law enforcement agencies recently formed the Carroll County Gang Assessment and Strategic Planning Group.
The group is expected to receive a $15,000 grant from the state next month to hire a consultant to compile a statistical report on the issue by mid-November, said Mary M. Scholz, administrator of the county's local management board.
Focus groups and community forums will also be planned for the late summer, Scholz said.
Once the group formulates a prevention plan, the county could apply for an additional $200,000 grant to help combat gangs, Darby said. She added that at least $4 million could be available from the state in the future for gang prevention programs.
These efforts come on the heels of a statewide gang violence summit, which Commissioners Dean L. Minnich and Perry L. Jones Jr. attended in Columbia this month.
"I've been wondering if we didn't have gang activity coming here for some time," Minnich said. "Some police chiefs said, 'Well, we have some wannabes.' But there's no such thing. It's a sign of people wanting to be in a gang."
When the county state's attorney's office started monitoring local gang activities 18 months ago, they focused on the Crips, who were involved in drug distribution and related crimes in Westminster, officials said.
Sixteen Crips are incarcerated or on probation, while four others are being watched, according to a report from the state's attorney's office.
More recently, the presence of the Bloods has also increased in the county, migrating from surrounding areas in Harford, Howard and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City, said Deputy Michael Bullock of the Carroll County Detention Center.
Specifically, six local Bloods members have pending cases or convictions, according to the state's attorney's report. The Bloods are the most prevalent gang in Maryland, investigators told participants at the conference in Columbia.
That gang has most recently been involved in incidents in Baltimore and in schools in Harford County.
In total, about 30 county residents associated with gangs were identified through a database Bullock helped set up four months ago.
"Being in the detention center, we get a lot of information the guys on the street don't get," Bullock said. "Dealing with inmates on a day-to-day basis, they begin to trust us and open up a bit."
With Carroll County's growing Hispanic population, law enforcement officials said that MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, could gain a foothold here.
That gang, formed by El Salvadorans living in Los Angeles, has stirred attention in recent years for its rapid spread and violent activities. Four years ago, some MS-13 graffiti was found in Westminster, Bullock said.
A member of another Latino gang, called Vatos Locos, was picked up in Westminster and deported to Mexico a few months ago, Bullock said.
Gang prevention efforts should work through the schools, social service agencies and local nonprofit agencies, law enforcement officials said.
Kids should be educated about the connections between gangs and drugs, Bullock added, even at the elementary level.
The county public schools have focused less on prevention and more on training security staff to detect gangs, said Larry Faries, the county's coordinator of school security.
"We've focused the last couple of years on staff, so that they know what to look for," Faries said. "It all has to do with money."
When the Crips surfaced in Westminster, the city's Police Department held community meetings and increased patrols in the area, said Capt. Randy Barnes, a spokesman for the Westminster Police Department.
But as a whole, Carroll County is behind neighboring counties in terms of prevention efforts, Darby said.
"It's never politically popular to say you have a gang problem, but it's a reality," she said. "If we get in front of the problem now, we can keep it from getting worse."