After one Fairfax County teenager lost most of his hand in a machete attack and another was shot to death in one week, elected officials and law enforcement officials vowed to redouble their efforts to arrest and prosecute gang members last week.
Speaking outside the Fairfax County government center last Thursday, U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10) promised that the Justice Department would send $500,000 to Northern and Northwestern Virginia to combat the growing threat of gangs in suburban and, increasingly, in rural communities.
"All the opportunity, prosperity and happiness in the world means nothing if your children can't play in their neighborhood or you can't walk the streets or feel safe in your own home," he said.
Wolf also ticked off the list of recent crimes police have linked to gangs: The murder of a Herndon teenager last week, the machete attack on an Alexandria teenager the week before, the stabbing of a man in Leesburg last spring and the murder of a man on Daingerfield island on the Potomac River a few days after Sept. 11, 2001.
"We can't hide from the fact that there is a gang problem in the place we call home," Wolf said.
The new money will be split between the 10th district gang task force and the northwest Virginia regional drug task force with the 10th district task force receiving $350,000. The task force, which Wolf help found in 2003, has received over $2 million to date from the federal government. Herndon Police Chief Toussaint Summers, who chairs the 10th district task force, said the group has made about 300 arrests, interviewed 338 suspects, worked 62 vice cases and taken 60 weapons off the street. The task force also includes officials from Arlington and Alexandria.
"I think this is a remarkable effort," he said, adding that the task force will focus increasingly on efforts "to educate our kids in the school system that it's not cool to be in a gang."
WOLF WAS joined by two U.S. attorneys, federal officers and police chiefs from around the region, many of whom emphasized the need for aggressive prosecutions.
"It has to have the hammer," said Paul McNulty, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.
John Malone, special agent in charge of the Washington field division for the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms echoed McNulty's sentiments.
"We must turn up the heat in these groups and drive them out of our communities," he said.
Law enforcement officials noted that flushing out gang members from one jurisdiction only encourages them to settle in the neighboring jurisdiction. Gang members are starting to settle in the Winchester and Front Royal areas, said John Brownlee, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia.
"They can come into Winchester and they can sell their wares and they can get a better price [for drug sales]," he said.
But Suzanne Devlin, Fairfax County's acting police chief, struck a different tone. Instead of cracking down on young people, she warned that sending teenagers to jail may not be the best idea.
"We're talking about jailing America's youth," she said. "Our kids that we send down, they're coming back and who are they coming back as?"
The best way to fight gangs, she said, is to give teenagers something productive to do.
"Many of our kids in gangs will say to you, 'We have nothing to do. We have no place to be. We are marginalized by society.’"
She suggested keeping schools open all day so young people can play basketball or stay in a safe environment as an option. She also cited a job training program in Manassas funded by U.S. Labor Department funds.
"We actually have gangs in our teen centers taking cooking classes," she said. "As vicious as these kids are, they're between the ages of 12 and 13 and 17 and 18."
AT THE STATE LEVEL, Attorney General Jerry Kilgore announced Wednesday the creation of a special gang prosecution unit in the Attorney General's office. Kilgore said the unit will work with local police and investigators to prosecute gang cases. This year, at Kilgore's request, the General Assembly toughened the penalties for people found guilty of gang-related crimes. Also, on Monday, Gov. Mark Warner (D) announced he would push for $400,000 in funding to create three new assistant commonwealth's attorney positions dedicated solely to prosecuting gang-related cases. Warner also said he wanted new money for a Virginia State Police special force as well as for education and prevention efforts