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Sheriff's Office Prepares for Full-Time Gang Unit

For a year and a half, Investigator Scott Mastandrea has been a unit of one, and most of that on a part-time basis. Mastandrea, in between fulfilling his other duties with the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office, has been the county's anti-gang unit.

Now Mastandrea will be getting some help. As part of the county budget, which takes effect July 1, the Sheriff's Office gains 29 positions, including a five-member anti-gang unit. In addition, a $520,000 federal grant is being used to establish a regional anti-gang task force, bringing together the units from local counties including Loudoun, Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William to share information and conduct anti-gang education programs.

"This is not an isolated Loudoun County problem, this is a Northern Virginia issue," Mastandrea said. "The new unit gives us more man power. For example, come August I go to all the schools to do awareness programs and there are just too many for one person. It's also a safety issue. When I go out and target people, you should always go out in groups of at least two."

"WHAT WE'RE SEEING as far as gang activity is that it is getting more aggressive," said Sheriff Stephen O. Simpson. "Gangs are starting to work their way out this way. They are not new to the area, but are new to Loudoun County."

Mastandrea said he is only now starting to go back in the records gathering statistics on gang activity — he has been assigned to the unit full time for six months — but that there is clearly more activity that can be attributed to gangs than before.

"We're not Chicago or L.A. where they have drive-by shootings," Mastandrea said. "We don't have any documented murders we can definitely link to gangs, but we see a lot more graffiti because the gangs are new to the area and are marking their territory. We also see more assaults, malicious woundings such as stabbings, street-level robbery like strong-arming someone for their wallet. We also suspect some of the auto thefts we've been seeing can be linked to gangs."

Simpson said for the most part, gang activity had remained east of Loudoun, in Prince William County, but lately the Sheriff's Office has seen a migration, especially of the El Salvadoran gangs.

"Fortunately, we don't have the same kinds of activities that happen east of us, but any gang activity is a problem. We don't want it to become a big gang problem," Simpson said. "There are about 120 to 130 identified gang members living in Loudoun County. That is a big concern for us. We need to be more aggressive."

THE SHERIFF'S OFFICE has broken its gang unit into four functions: intelligence, investigation, enforcement and education. And until now, it was all the responsibility of Mastandrea. Simpson said the expanded unit will consist of four officers and a supervisor.

Mastandrea said a majority of his time was spent gathering intelligence on the gangs, which involves identifying members and new groups, debriefing people who are arrested and determining if a crime is gang related.

As for investigation, Mastandrea would conduct the criminal investigation for all crimes determined to be connected to a gang. He would also train other officers to identify gang-related activity and members.

"Just because a person is wearing a blue bandanna doesn't mean they are part of a gang," Mastandrea said.

In addition, as part of enforcement the unit goes out and targets known gang members by patrolling "hot spots" known for high gang-related activity and looking for members that have outstanding warrants for other crimes. The final piece, education, involves going to schools, community organizations and neighborhood coalitions and teaching them about reality of gangs.

"I tell them to use their own judgment. If something looks out of place to them, then it is," Mastandrea said. "In general, look for groups hanging out, acting suspicious, being rowdy."

Simpson said he intends to fill out the gang unit from within the existing ranks and that he is in the process of locating an office for it to work out of. The unit will also be a part of the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, which is hosted by Fairfax County and will share gang-related information through a database.

"One of our five will be involved in the task force on a daily basis," Simpson said. "We will share information and they will share information with us. It's a regional problem and gangs need to be dealt with regionally."