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Finding alternatives to gangs
County law enforcement works to offer options besides gangs
Courtesy of wikicommons

To learn about the signs of gang interest click here.

It may just look like someone got creative with a spray can of paint, but law enforcement sees graffiti as a possible sign of gang activity.

For the most part, there has been little evidence of gang activity in Newton County, according to local law enforcement. However, in March of 2015, eight alleged members of the Ghost-Faced Gang, a violent gang thought to be operating out of prisons, were indicted in Newton County Superior Court on three counts of the racketeering influenced corrupt organizations (RICO) act. Three of them were also charged with seven counts of aggravated assault, one count of conspiracy to commit murder and 14 counts of criminal street gang related acts. [See ‘Ghost Face Gangsters’ plead guilty to racketeering at].

In May of 2016, 32 members of Gangster Disciples were federally indicted on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) charges. One of those charged was Conyers resident Charles Wingate, who allegedly served as chief of security for a Covington group.

“We’ve got all flavors here,” said Captain Kevin Crum of the Newton County Sheriff’s Office (NCSO). “It’s keeping it under control where we can intervene and take action.”

If officers see a community with an increasing number of incidents, officers reach out to the neighborhood associations and neighborhood watch, he said. “With neighbor’s involvement, they know who these children are. We can send in our resource people and let parents know their child is getting involved in gang activity.”

Crum said the NCSO has a Crime Suppression Unit with five deputies who do intelligence and statistical gathering to predict where gang activity may be happening. “We’ll send in patrols, see who’s hanging out on the corner, try to get in the community and parents involved,” he said.

“There aren’t enough of us to solve the problem,” Crum said. “We need the community’s help by letting us know when they see some [suspicious activity].” (See sidebar story here.)

“It’s a misnomer to say you can prevent [gang activity],” said Sgt. James Fountain of the Newton County Sheriff’s Office (NCSO). “What we do is monitor gang activity. We try to track if there’s someone who’s showing signs of gang activity.”

Fountain said education about gangs never stop. The state offers a 40-hour gang investigation course that teaches “you the nuts and bolts of investigating or putting a case together.

“Gang activity is so evolving, you have to keep up,” he said. In addition to courses, officers read materials as they are published, research online and take part in an association that meets once a month to discuss gang investigation.

“We talk to guys from different areas, and we talk about what we’re having problems with,” he said. “That’s where we learn a lot.

Fountain leads a session of the Porterdale Citizen Police Academy, which Porterdale Police Chief Jason Cripps says is excellent. The material includes the how to recognize gang signs and symbols. Like the NCSO, the emphasis in both Porterdale and Covington is on building relationships with residents.

Advantages of small town life

“The positive thing about Porterdale is we have a small community,” Cripps said. When we have an incident with a teen, we can address it with the parents. When so many people live in a small area, you get to know the citizens and the citizens get to know the officers.”

In Porterdale, block parties are held during the summer so youth and children have an opportunity to interact with the village’s police officers. Officers also sit down with children and visit during the Smart Lunch, Smart Kid programs during the summer.

“We get out and play basketball and baseball with the kids,” he said. “A lot of time, parents will bring kids to the station. It’s like the old 1930s and 1940s policing, where everyone knows everyone.”

Covington is much larger than Porterdale, but police officers are just as committed to building relationships with children, youth and adults. For years, said Police Chief Stacey Cotton, the Covington Police Department (CPD) ran the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program, providing it at all the schools.

Today, he said, “we’re involved with in the community and we try to build relationships with the kids, whether it’s through the recreation department, the annual FUZZ Run, Scare on the Square, or in other ways.”

Cotton said the CPD doesn’t see much gang activity, though in some neighborhoods, they do deal with kids stealing or writing graffiti. “Gang activity is something we won’t tolerate.

“We have kids running around saying they’re Bloods or Crips,” Cotton said. “Once they become adults, they tend not to stay in those groups. We don’t see any adult activity.”

“On occasion we’ve had cases that have popped up that are affiliated with an investigation in Atlanta,” Cotton said. “We may have had someone living out here that might be associated with a gang. We don’t see true organized gangs in our city. The adult gangs that occur in Atlanta, they’re in areas where gang activity is more profitable for them; I don’t think it is profitable here in Covington.”

Cotton said there have been a few incidents when outside agencies came to the police department and reported about a person’s involvement in a gang. “If there was, we’d open an investigation or assist in an investigation. But if a gang member is working at a business here and not doing gang activities while they work, there’s nothing we can do.

“When we have gang activity,” Cotton said, “we follow up on it. We have officers trained to investigate gangs. What we try to do is maintain information about the kids, track their movements and break it up. If we catch them in a crime and it is part of a gang activity, we charge them with that.”

According to Fountain, the Georgia Gang Act is a sentence enhancer, adding an additional five years to whatever sentence a person receives if it is connected to a gang. To make that happen, he said, “you have to have intel in place so we can go into court and say this is why we think [it’s gang related].”

The attraction to gangs

Like the police departments, the NCSO is trained to recognize and document signs of gang activity. “What we have seen here is a lot of groups claiming to be Gangster Disciples, Bloods, Crips, but we don’t have any solid information that tells us they are,” Fountain said.

Though some people may claim gang membership, so far the NCSO hasn’t been able to connect them to anywhere but Newton County.

“If you look at kids who get in a gang, they may be living in a high risk area where there is already gang activity,” Fountain said. “They may have relatives – a brother, cousin, uncle – who are involved. To them, [the gang] becomes

their family and promises to look out for you.”
Culturally, music and movies have glamourized the gangster lifestyle, he said. “Gangsters have all the money, the cars, the women … They don’t show them in prison with none of your gang buddies coming to visit.

“If you have a child whose grown up in an at risk area, they may feel like they don’t have a future. They look at a gang as an opportunity to get status,” he said.

For some, especially those who are related to gang members, gangs become a substitute for a role model, someone who can give advice. And older gang members do recruit, he said.

“That’s why school resource officers are so important,” said Sgt. Cortney Morrison. “They can identify an at-risk student and reach out to them. A lot of SROs are mentors.”

Officers connect with students

Student Resource Officers (SRO) are on the three Newton County high school campuses during the school year.
“The first thing we try to do is give them positive interaction with law enforcement,” Fountain said. “For a lot of these kids, the only interaction they have with law enforcement is negative.”

According to Deputy Jeremy Vieira who is an SRO at Eastside High School, students are often stand-offish in the beginning, “not comfortable with seeing a deputy every day at school. But as the year goes by and the student gets older, they become more comfortable and trust more.

“At that point, they begin to approach and ask questions and respond to questions,” he said. “This also demonstrates to other students it is okay to talk and speak to law enforcement, which develops a positive image of law enforcement and report with the students.”

Vierney said there is some gang activity in schools because most young people are followers and what to fit in what they perceive as the trend in their neighborhood. “We have seen evidence of this and the sheriff’s office and school intervene by counseling the student and communicating with the parents.”

Like Fountain, Vierney said there is a need to counteract the glamourous images of gang. “Try to educate students and families of the history of gangs and the outcome of gang activity being death of prison.”

He also believes offering positive activities, like sports after school and during the summer can be a deterrent. And by educating juveniles about the dangers and outcomes of gang life can also help. “Getting parents, school personnel or any other adult support system involved is a great deterrent and asset.”