Urging parents to talk to their kids and pay attention to what is going on in their lives, one of the area's leading gang experts gave tips yesterday to about two dozen community, education and religious leaders on how to recognize and combat gang activity.
Frank Clark, director of the Gang Intervention and Investigation Unit for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, told his audience at a Catonsville library to be aware of large groups of young adults wearing red or blue colors, and that graffiti with five- or six-point symbols and numbers arranged in a certain order are generally signs of gang activity. Clark said members of the Bloods and the Crips, both national gangs, use these symbols to identify themselves.
Clark showed slides of small children dressed in red or blue bandannas and carrying guns, evidence, he said, that gangs are recruiting members at a young age.
"We do have a growing problem in the state, and my biggest concern is the kids that it's affecting," Clark said. "We've got kids aspiring to be gang members. We've got gang members in Maryland as young as 7 years old. It's an issue."
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat who hosted the forum, said that about 35 gangs operate in Baltimore County. Cummings said there is a gang presence in every county police precinct.
The Department of Juvenile Services defines a gang as an association of three or more persons that forms to engage in criminal activity.
"A lot of the crime that takes place is as a result of gang activity," Cummings said. "We just wanted to make teachers, principals, parents and others aware as to what to look for when it comes to gang activities, such as the language of the gangs, the colors they wear and the graffiti spray-painted on the walls."
Clark said the Bloods, Crips and MS-13 are national gangs with a loosely connected local presence. He said many members of local gangs claim affiliation with these groups but may not be recognized nationally. "But that doesn't make them any less dangerous," he said.
A study by the National Youth Gang Center found 87 percent of gang members joined before their 16th birthdays, Clark said. He told parents, especially those with high school-age children, to monitor what children look at on the Internet, the clothes they wear and what type of tattoos they get.
"No child of mine is going to go around wearing just one color," Clark said.
Erik Rogers has a 16-year-old son at Woodlawn High and said he attended the forum so he would know how to react if his son became involved in gang activity.
"I just really wanted the knowledge," Rogers said. "I've seen my son actually bring some of that home. And I didn't understand. But from seeing these signs, now I understand it. And I know how to relate to him. I'm using love and understanding."
This was the first in a series of gang forums to be held by Cummings, including one scheduled for next month in Baltimore City. Baltimore police estimate there are about 2,600 known or suspected members of street gangs, including 400 Bloods, 100 Crips, and a few dozen members of MS-13 in the city.
In city schools, officials have formulated a safety plan that includes initiatives to combat gangs, primarily in middle and high schools. Last spring, officials identified about 30 city schools that have gangs in them. This year's school budget includes an additional $1 million for more school police officers and $1.8 million for more hall monitors, along with a Gang Resistance Education and Training program in schools identified as having gang problems.
Other gang forums will be held from 10 a.m. to noon Oct. 6 at the East Columbia library, and from 10 a.m. to noon Oct. 20 at the State Center Auditorium in Baltimore.