WASHINGTON – Officials from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties told federal lawmakers Wednesday they are stepping up their collaborative efforts to rake the region clean of gangs, with the help of $2 million in federal funding and a web of support services for at-risk youths.
At a House Government Reform Committee field hearing hosted by U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen in the Takoma Park Council chambers, county officials testified that, despite an upsurge in gang violence in the region, joint prevention programs and a network of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies are working to sap area gangs of recruits.
“Children don’t suddenly wake up and one morning and decide they want to be in a gang,” said Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson. “Critical factors such as nuclear family decay, lack of strong role models, lack of educational tools and limited job potential are among the most common factors making children susceptible to gang influence.”
That’s the case with Richard A. Brown, who told the committee that he was abused as a child and fell in with a gang when he was 15. Once he had earned enough as subordinate, he started his own gang before being arrested in Florida on drug charges.
Now 10 years removed from that life, Brown spoke of a need for programs that reach out to youth in communities where gangs are prominent.
“When I was young, my only choice was the gangs, so I thought I was making the right choice,” Brown said. “I learned later that it was the wrong choice. Give our youth something else to do other than the gangs.”
Three gangs in particular — Mara Salvatrucha, the Bloods and the Crips — account for almost 70 percent of gang-related crimes in Montgomery County, said John King, Montgomery County assistant police chief. From November 2005 to May 2006 the county saw documented gang members and gang-related crimes rise 30 percent.
The numbers reflect the gangs’ fluidity, said Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., who heard testimony in July from Virginia officials about gang violence.
“The bottom line is that gangs don’t observe neat jurisdictional boundaries,” Davis said, adding that some have attributed the spike in gang activity in Maryland to the success of the Northern Virginia Regional Task Force, a web of 13 jurisdictions.
“As we craft our regional strategies for combating gangs, we need to be careful not to cut off one head only to see it sprout anew somewhere else,” he said.
The partnership between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, to a lesser extent, mimics Virginia’s task force, with its coordinating law enforcement bodies, mentoring and after-school programs and social services.
Johnson and Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan forged the Joint Gang Task Force in 2004, co-chaired by police chiefs from each jurisdiction and focused on prevention and intervention.
The cornerstone of the partnership has been the Crossroads Youth Opportunity Center, which opened in May and is so-named because it straddles both counties. The center, funded by federal grants and pledges from both counties, has served 119 youths and their families, providing a range of services.
Montgomery County Council President George L. Leventhal said that, while “effective law enforcement is critical,” so are prevention and intervention services.
“When young people cannot find stability, support friendship and activities in their own homes, schools and communities, they become vulnerable to invitations of gang recruiters,” Leventhal said.
After an initial $2 million in federal funding in fiscal year 2006, Leventhal requested $1.4 million for FY 2007, for additional after-school programs, outreach services, youth centers and continued funding for the county’s gang investigation unit. –