Herndon Police Chief Toussaint Summers is careful with his words. He admits he doesn't like to say that Herndon has a gang problem. "So if the press asks, I will say, 'No we don't have gangs.' I might say we have youths committing violence and they happen to be hanging around together," he said. "I don't want to give the gangs credit. They want to see their names in the paper."
Unlike his boss, Herndon Police Officer Claudio Saa does not mince words when it comes to youth crime. "First and foremost, there are gangs in Herndon. They are violent gangs," Saa told a group of about 50 concerned residents and community activists, including Summers, Thursday night. "We have gangs, bottom line, but the best way a community can get involved, is to make a phone call."
Toussaint and Saa, who the chief hailed as a "gang expert," were guest speakers at a joint meeting of the Herndon Crime Prevention Council (HCPC) and the Herndon Community Association Council (HCAC) in the Town Council chambers organized to educate residents on rising gang activity and to promote community watch groups.
Saa, a third-year officer on the Herndon force, said gangs are not a problem unique to Herndon. "It's a Northern Virginia problem," he said. Saa, who specializes in gang-related crimes, estimated there are 20 to 25 gangs in and around Fairfax County, the largest one in the Washington D.C.-metropolitan region is 800-members strong, he said.
"You've probably seen them," Saa told the crowd. "They hang out by the 7-Eleven. They don't work, they basically drink and get high on drugs."
Saa, who is Hispanic and once worked as a day laborer, made it clear, however, that most local immigrants and day laborers, including many who can be seen near the 7-Eleven on Elden Street in the mornings, are not involved in gangs. "I'd say 95 percent of those people are hardworking. They clean our offices, they work the McDonald's drive-in. They do the stuff we don't want to do," Saa said. "It's the other 5 percent that makes it bad for everyone."
<b>NORTHERN VIRGINIA</b> will never get rid of gangs entirely, only suppress them, said Saa, a Herndon resident, he has made it his goal to eliminate gangs from his community. "Not in my town. Take it somewhere else — take it to Loudoun County. Take it over to Fairfax City. We don't want it in Herndon."
Other than loitering, Saa said there are several other gang warning signs, including gang colors, suspicious drawings, nicknames and hand signs. "Get interested in your kids' activities," he said. "It starts at home."
Saa, who regularly counsels at-risk youth at Herndon Middle School, said gangs have begun recruiting members in elementary schools and that it is not uncommon to see a 13-year-old girl dating a 25-year-old gang member. "Gangs prey on the weak," he said.
"Most of our youth just want to belong," the chief said.
Saa made it clear, however, that just because a child starts wearing baggy jeans or comes home with a tattoo does not mean he or she has joined a gang. "I have tattoos," he said smiling.
<b>ON A DAY </b>when neighboring Montgomery County in Maryland was rocked with five randomly connected murders in 16 hours, community policing and safer neighborhoods were on the minds of many Thursday night, including the chief. Summers said if a similar thing happened in Herndon, it would take a team effort to solve the crimes. "I'm confident that these types of crimes are solved best when the community and police have a relationship and when residents feel comfortable saying, 'Hey, this guy doesn't belong here.'"
Summers, whose support of community policing dates back to his days in Prince William County, said community involvement with the police is the best way to keep neighborhoods free from crime. "We can send officers out, but if you are vigilant and aware then that is the one best way to stay safe," the chief said. "Together we can have over 20,000 police officers if everybody takes part or we can just have 54 which is the size of our police department."
Like the chief, Charles Waddell, who organized the town hall forum, is a proponent of community policing and neighborhood watch programs. A community activist, Waddell is president of his homeowners association, chairman of the HCAC and president of the HCPC and he said his groups try to fight crime with education. Thursday, he challenged Herndon residents to get involved in the safety of their town. "If you have a neighborhood watch in your neighborhood, join it," he said. "Start one if you don't."
Summers, too, implored Herndon residents to participate in their local neighborhood watch group. The chief praised the Four Seasons neighborhood as a "success story" and an example of what an active and alert community watch program can mean to a community. "When I first arrived there were just a lot of things going on in Four Seasons, the police department spent a lot of time there. Then, all of a sudden, they got energized and said, 'Hey, wait a minute, we aren't going to take this anymore,'" Summers said.
Summers applauded residents for forming a new neighborhood watch and patrolling their own streets. "It got to the point where the bad guys didn't know who the police was," Summers said laughing. "That's a good thing and that's what we want."
Saa said residents should not be scared to pick up the phone and call the police, adding that residents should not try and confront anyone. "If you see something suspicious, please just call us."
Nothing is too small, he said. From drinking to loitering to graffiti, Saa urged the crowd to let the police know what is happening in their community. "One phone call could stop an assault, a burglary or a murder," he said. "The police are here to help the community, but the community has to help us, too. If it concerns you, it concerns us