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Rodriguez, Partner Make Up County’s Gangbusters

Detective with nine years experience combating gangs soon to teach methods to area police recruits.

There’s a mysterious new graffiti showing up around Arlington.

Whoever the writer is, he or she favors Three "7"s followed by "Rey," the Spanish word for king.

Rick Rodriguez has been trying to track down "777 Rey" for weeks now, but he’s having a hard time of it. "I have no idea who’s doing it," said Rodriguez, the one constant member of the Arlington Police Department’s Gang and Graffiti Unit.

"I put it in a nationwide law enforcement database," Rodriguez said. "I went to gang members and asked them if they knew who it was."

So far, none of those leads have paid off. The closest Rodriguez has gotten was a phone call to the police, a report of graffiti in progress. "We got close, but he was gone by the time the officer got there," he said.

It was a frustratingly close call. But Rodriguez has gotten used to that kind of frustration. He’s spent 14 years on the Arlington force, and got into working on gangs nine years ago.

That means he’s known on the street, and can step in whenever police or prosecutors need help unraveling gang trends in criminal cases. They credit Rodriguez with helping cut through cultural barriers, but also with opening their eyes to what "gangs" mean in Arlington.

"The other day, I was out walking with my wife, and I saw a bunch of guys lined up in the woods, and one guy talking to them," said Richard Trodden, Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington. "It wasn’t a crime. But it was not a Mason’s meeting."

<b>A TYPICAL DAY</b> means a lot of driving for Rodriguez and his partner, Leo Bello. "We’re almost never in the office," Rodriguez said.

They get into the department in the afternoon, and spend the afternoon into the evening checking out reports of misbehaving gang members, and teenagers flirting with gang involvement.

Officers on the street fill out white cards when they run into gang activity, and pass those on to Rodriguez and Bello. They look for names they recognize, and names they don’t, and pay the members and their families a visit.

"We pay them a visit, and ask them why are they doing it? Why do they need to join a gang?" Everyone has different reasons, Rodriguez said, but they often boil down to looking for a family when single mothers are working late.

He cautions current gang members, telling them he’ll be friendly when he sees them on the street, until they cross the line and commit a crime. Then he’ll be locking them up, and trying to send them to jail.

It doesn’t often work, he said, but former gang members do give Rodriguez credit later in life.

"The guys who are here still, some will admit to mistakes," he said. "They say, ‘Of all the people who had an impact on me, I should‘ve listened to you guys.’"

When Rodriguez and Bello run into a teen just beginning to flirt with joining a gang, he tries to suggest some alternatives, and leaves them with a warning as well. If they keep hanging out with gang members, he tells them, "you’ll be seeing a lot more of the police."

<b>THERE HAVE BEEN FEW</b> gang murders in recent years. In October 2000, the specter of gang activity raised its head in a shooting outside the 7-11 on Columbia Pike.

Capt. Michael Dunne, Rodriguez’s district commander, said that the detective played a key role in soothing the community after the killing. "He was incredibly helpful in allaying community fears," Dunne said, "saying this was not a gang war, it was just two knuckleheads who happened to be at the same place at the same time."

Dunne and Trodden said Rodriguez’s knowledge of Arlington’s gang members also brought an identification of a suspect in the case, Edwin Alvarez, a member of the gang Mara Salvatrucha.

Ultimately, they said, Rodriguez was instrumental in bringing about a guilty verdict and life sentence for Alvarez.

<b>RODRIGUEZ HAS BEEN</b> fighting Northern Virginia gang problems so long, in fact, that he’s become something of a resource for other departments.

He’s trained the Arlington department’s recruits for years in dealing with gang members, telling them what they need to look for, what he wants from them, how they should deal with suspected members.

This April, he will take that training to the regional police academy in Ashburn, where officers for Alexandria, Arlington, Falls Church, Loudoun County and Herndon go for general training.

It makes some sense, Rodriguez said. The Arlington Gang Unit is the oldest, and he has been working on it since its inception four years ago. Before that, he worked with a community-based policing unit, instituting a gang intervention program involving parents there.

"Back in 1993 into ’95, we started seeing an increase in Hispanic gangs," Rodriguez said. "I heard ‘gang,’ and I thought, ‘This could be interesting.’"

He took a gang course, and started talking to gang members as he patrolled, stopping his car, talking to groups of young men standing around, asking who they were with. "You get to know them, and know who’s done what when something happened," he said.

That meant some disillusionment. Rodriguez, now 36, started working with gang members when he was in his mid-20s, looking for some excitement as a patrolman. "It’s not always fun," he said. "Sometimes its dangerous. They’ve threatened me, and my partner."

Rodriguez gets new partners every three months, working with Bello until April.

<b>WHILE HE SPENDS,</b> afternoons patrolling, Rodriguez spends Wednesday mornings on the radio.

From 8:30 to 9:30, Rodriguez joins Probation officer Laura Perez on Emisora Unida, 1390 AM, a Spanish-language radio station based in Arlington. They take phone calls from the community, answering questions about the law, and law enforcement, as best they can.

"Since Sept. 11, there have been a lot of questions about DMV changes in paperwork," he said. "We tell them, tell the people there what you want, they’ll tell you what you need."

Most of the questions are the kind of counseling services police provide on routine calls, he said: Women who are abused at home asking whether they should leave their husbands or boyfriends, or neighborhood residents wondering whether to call police.

Sometimes people call, feeling they’ve been mistreated by police. Rodriguez tells them they should file a complaint.

Occasionally, he gets a gang tip on the air. But the two jobs don’t often overlap, he said. "Sometimes we get a tip, people think there are gang members hanging out," he said. "But most are not related."