Characterize them and they change. Talk about them and they take the glory. Do not erase their marks, and they take that as a welcome.
As gang activity in Loudoun reaches a new level, the Sheriff's Office's reaction involves an anti-gang unit, community policing and participation in local, regional and state task forces.
“That’s our approach ... to be aggressive, pro-active and upfront ... to keep it from being an epidemic,” said Sheriff Stephen Simpson.
In the 1990s, gang activity consisted of locally organized or wanna-be-gangs consisting of juveniles that disbanded once the juveniles became adults. These gangs typically sold drugs in single sales and were involved in petty crime activity that was a nuisance to police. The most recent wanna-be-gang, called the Zoo Crew, disbanded by the mid-1990s as the members grew up, Simpson said.
Gangs were localized until the last couple of years as organized or super gangs saw Loudoun as virgin land and started moving further west out of Fairfax County to vie for the county’s new territory. They located in the more populated areas in the eastern end of the county, including Sterling Park, Sugarland Run and Cascades.
“Typically, what we’re seeing is spillover from Fairfax, Prince William and Arlington,” said Scott Mastandrea, investigator for the Sheriff’s Office’s anti-gang unit and a six-year employee of the Sheriff’s Office, adding that gangs are now getting more attention from law enforcement. “They’re coming out here, and it’s a new problem for us.”
MS-13, which has its roots in El Salvador, is the only such gang that the Sheriff’s Office is aware of that has made a presence in Loudoun. In addition, the Sheriff’s Office has identified a total of 120 to 130 gang members in the county.
“We’re at a totally different level now,” Mastandrea said. “They come here for the sole purpose of the enterprise that is here.”
“This is organized crime,” Simpson added.
UPON THEIR ARRIVAL, the gangs confronted the wanna-be-gangs, who had to fight back to protect themselves and their territory or join. “In the past, they were a nuisance, but now they’re a serious problem,” Mastandrea said. “In the past, they more or less existed. Now they’re becoming more violent.”
The gangs are transient and do not control specific neighborhoods, unlike the street gangs consisting of members who grew up in the neighborhood and joined the local gang. The gang members are typically 15 or 16 years old up to the late 20s and live with their parents or relatives if they are juveniles and with relatives or at a change of addresses if they are adults, Mastandrea said.
Mastandrea and the other investigators look for indicators of gang activity and specific qualities of gang members that are “much deeper than race and color of jersey,” he said, adding that gangs typically do not operate by wearing the same color, though they may wear the same style of clothing. They also may change in response to publicity, so that if a gang wears blue bandannas and the fact is mentioned in the media, the gang members might remove the item from their attire.
“They live here. They’re part of families. It’s a long-term process,” Simpson said. “It’s not an overnight quick-fix.”
The Sheriff’s Office wants to see the gangs move elsewhere by making it uncomfortable for them to conduct business in Loudoun that includes drug sales, tagging and fighting. “I think that’s why it’s important for us to become progressive and proactive, so they can’t establish a stronghold,” Simpson said.
“We want them [other officers] to identify gang activity and allow us to determine if they are gangs,” Mastandrea said.
The Sheriff’s Office began tracking gang activity in 2002, collecting statistics on crimes that can be attributed to gangs, such as strong-armed and street level robberies, automobile thefts, graffiti and vandalism, along with drug activity, though as of yet, the gangs have not been involved in organized drug trafficking. The gangs are involved in opportunistic type crimes to make a quick dollar and are not “real organized,” Mastandrea said.
THE JOB of making gangs “uncomfortable” originally was that of Mastandrea, who was assigned on a part-time basis 1.5 years ago to address gang activity in Loudoun, then assigned full-time to the task six months later. Last month, he received additional help through the hiring of three investigators transferred from within the department, including Frank Pearson, Mark Poland and John Russ, a unit that falls under the supervision of Sgt. Rudy Landon, who oversees the juvenile crimes unit. The Board of Supervisors approved the new investigator positions in the county’s 2004 operating budget for a July 1 start date.
As a gang unit, the investigators provide intelligence, investigations, enforcement and education on gangs and gang-related activity. Gathering intelligence involves identifying members of gangs and any new gang members or groups entering the area, keeping track of where gang members live and hang out, including hot spots for gang activity, and where they leave graffiti.
THE INVESTIGATIVE ARM of the unit conducts criminal investigations for any crimes determined to be connected to a gang. The investigators may take the cases or assist on cases considered to be gang-related.
As for enforcement, the unit targets known gang members by patrolling targeted areas and looks for gang members with outstanding warrants, mostly by working weekends and nights when gang activity typically occurs. The unit provides education by visiting schools, community organizations and neighborhood coalitions to provide information on gangs, along with training other officers in the department on what to look for and how to respond.
The investigators attend Homeowner Association and Neighborhood Watch meetings, as do the deputies assigned to the community-policing unit, which takes a proactive approach to crime by providing a police presence in neighborhoods. The community police officers work in specific areas to become familiar with the habits of the neighborhoods and identify anything out of the ordinary, said Charles Harris (D-Broad Run), a member of the Board of Supervisors.
“We need people to be aware that this stuff is happening in our neighborhoods,” Mastandrea said, adding that he does not want to scare Loudoun residents but inform them on the precautions they should take. They often ask him what they should look for and what they can do to help law enforcement address the problem.
“That’s a big question, ‘What are you doing about the gang situation?’” Simpson said.
Stacia Hill, property manager for the Sugarland Run Homeowners Association, said the office has not received any complaints so far from residents about gang activity. “People don’t seem too worried about it,” she said, adding that having a community policing station in Sugarland Run helps the residents feel safe. “We have someone here who cares about the neighborhood and does a great job.”
Harris said the constituents in his district are concerned about theft, graffiti and vandalism and that the activities may be linked to gangs. “It’s perceived as a growing problem in the county. The data I’ve seen supports that,” he said. Even so, “It’s in its infantile stages. This is the time to cut it off.”
Mastandrea said, “This attack on gangs has to be a community approach, not just [through] law enforcement.”