When Newton County Sheriff Joe Nichols spoke to local officials last week about the state of crime in the county, the growth of hybrid gangs topped his list of new threats to the area.
Hybrid gangs are often young people who are attracted to the 'gangsta' subculture. They may claim to be part of larger gangs, such as the Bloods or the Crips, but often have no real tie to those groups. These hybrid gangs most often do not strictly follow set rules as dictated by larger gangs, but they usually do have their own colors, symbols and initiation rites. Their crimes can range from graffiti to robbery.
NCSO Lt. Bill Watterson said the migration of hybrid gangs to Newton County began around 2000. Most of these gangs moved from larger areas such as Gwinnett and DeKalb counties, Watterson said.
NCSO Investigator James Fountain said Newton County does not face the same type of violent activities as those counties, but the problem could worsen without action by law enforcement.
"That's not what we have here, but we do have the potential to be that if we don't put a stop to it now, at its early stages," Fountain said. "The worst thing we can do is stick our heads in the sand and act like we don't have a problem."
The NCSO has assigned Fountain, Investigator Mickey Kitchens and Special Agent Bob Gaddy to kept track of gang activity in the county.
"The more information we gather, the better off we'll be," Fountain said.
The first signs of gang activity can often be seen in the school system, Fountain said. Students as young as 10 years old have been associated with a hybrid gang in Newton County. Each of the officers has taught classes to Newton County teachers on how to spot gang activity. Watterson said schools' resource officers are also trained to look for possible gang signs.
Georgia law defines a gang as three or more people who are associated by like signs, symbols or colors, Fountain said. Most of these hybrid gangs claim one neighborhood as their own and mark their territory with graffiti. The officers have to rely on the community to let them know when an area has been tagged (spray painted with gang symbols).
"If you see something suspicious, call us and we'll come and check it out," Fountain said. "A lot of times something you might not think is gang related is."
Once it is determined graffiti is gang related, pictures are taken and the area is then repainted by the county.
"We don't let it linger," Fountain said. "If we get rid of it and it never comes back up again, then we know they were just passing through. If it comes back, we know it's probably from local kids."
Many of these local hybrid gangs have formed after kids have seen gangs in the media. Fountain said movies, television shows, music and even professional athletes make gangs seem glamorous.
"A lot of kids see it as a way out," Fountain said. "They are looking for love or respect or protection, things they often aren't getting from home."
In other situations, a child might become part of gang because he has no other choice, Fountain said. If a gang has taken control of a neighborhood, a child might be forced to choose between joining and getting beaten.
"It's really just self preservation," Fountain said.
Fountain, Kitchen and Gaddy are all part of the Georgia Gang Investigators Association, which Fountain said improves their ability to communicate effectively with other agencies around the state about gang movement.
"If we can find out where they are coming from, we can contact the authorities from that area and maybe get some more information about the gang," Fountain said. "And if they call us, we let them know about people from our area."
When officers are sure they know who is in a hybrid gang, Fountain said they let the offenders know the NCSO is aware of their actions.
"A lot of times, that's all it takes to kill it out," Fountain said.
But when the actions become more serious, the gang members can be arrested and can face a harsher punishment under the gang act.
In order to survive, hybrid gangs have started to evolve, Fountain said, making it more difficult for officers to track their activities. They have begun to steer clear of classic gang colors and symbols to throw authorities off. Even as law enforcement in Newton County reacts to the gangs, Fountain said there is one sad truth they face.
"You can never totally get rid of gang activity once it starts," Fountain said.
If you have information regarding suspected gang activity, please call the NCSO at (678) 625-1403. Tips may also be given anonymously at (678) 625-5007 or on their Web site www.newtonsheriffga.org.