Gang activity is not rampant but it is here, Kraig Troxell of the Sheriff’s Office said.
"We don’t have the issues some neighboring jurisdictions have, but we are seeing a rise in gang-related graffiti. They [gangs] are marking their territory," said Troxell, public information officer. "We want to make sure they do not find a home in Loudoun County and establish themselves."
The Sheriff’s Office has taken a multi-faceted approach to gang prevention and intervention by beefing up the office's anti-gang unit, joining a regional gang task force and forming a Gang Response and Intervention Team (GRIT) with 10 other county agencies. The agencies of GRIT, which began meeting last spring, coordinate their services to work on gang prevention, intervention and suppression of street gang activity and to educate the community about gangs. The team uses the expertise of its members to identify gang members and recognize gang activity and to provide services for at-risk youth and their families.
"Hopefully by staying ahead of the curve, we won’t have a gang problem," said David Carver, GRIT coordinator and juvenile probation officer for the Juvenile Court Service Unit. "Yes, we have gang activity in the county, but hopefully we’re staying on top of it by not ignoring the problem."
GRIT HELD its first series of informational presentations last month on "Gang Prevention and Intervention in Loudoun County" in Hamilton, Leesburg and Sterling. Scott Mastandrea, investigator with the anti-gang unit, pointed out the indicators of gang membership, which include color of clothing and the manner it is worn, similar clothes worn in a group, use of sport team clothing, hand or throw signs and gang tattoos, a sign of hard-core gang membership. "They're very proud. This is their family," Carver said. "They aren't going to hide it."
Another indicator, graffiti, is used to identify a gang and its turf and possibly to offer a challenge against another gang. If the graffiti is not removed, the gang is more likely to view the territory as theirs. The less time it takes law enforcement or the community to remove the graffiti, the less likely the gang will re-mark the same territory. Graffiti and the other indicators are used as a communication tool with other gangs, but the gang members also want to avoid police attention, so the indicators can change.
"It's not against the law to be in a gang. There is not a thing we can do about it," Mastandrea said. "Once they get involved in a crime, that's against the law."
Gang activity in Loudoun is occurring in the denser population areas, mostly in Sterling and in Leesburg, and includes attacks, stabbings, larcenies from vehicles and drug trafficking. "We’re definitely seeing mob assaults, which weren’t that common before," Troxell said.
The Sheriff’s Office added three gang investigator positions in July to form a gang unit with Mastandrea, who has been working on gang investigations for the past two years. "We are able to accommodate more cases, generate more information to the patrol guys … and proactively gather information targeting gangs," he said.
THE SHERIFF'S OFFICE has not identified the actual number of gang members residing in Loudoun, since they may live in one county and gather in other counties. "Gang members don’t follow jurisdictional lines. These people might not be residents of Loudoun County," Troxell said.
In response, the regional gang task force shares information about gangs and gang activity and tracks prospective gang members across jurisdictional lines. "We are looking at it as an entire Northern Virginia issue," Mastandrea said. "We’re seeing it increase in all jurisdictions. We are expecting to see it slowly increase because that’s what we’re seeing in all of the other jurisdictions."
At the same time, Loudoun remains "a very safe community," Mastandrea said, adding that residents should be aware of gangs and contact the Sheriff's Office if they see anything suspicious or any of the indicators. "What we’re trying to do is to make the response to gangs a total community response. It’s not just law enforcement."
Mastandrea compared the response to community policing, a proactive law enforcement tool to provide police presence in neighborhoods. "GRIT is a way to get everyone involved, county organizations, schools and the public," he said. "It goes with the whole community policing philosophy, working with the community to solve the whole problem as a whole community."
As a result of the effort, the Sheriff’s Office has taken more complaints regarding gang activity. "Their eyes are more open. They are quicker to pick up the phone and report something," Mastandrea said. "It doesn’t necessarily [mean] the gang problems are getting worse, but people are more aware. That’s exactly what we want."
GRIT plans to hold future informational sessions on gangs.