While the past year has brought grudging awareness by residents of the problem of gangs, state legislators are getting serious about cracking down on gangs in Northern Virginia.
Del. David Albo (R-42nd) has introduced four pieces of legislation into the General Assembly, all related to increasing the power of the justice system to prosecute gang-related crime.
"Our citizens … are afraid to venture out in neighborhoods where gangs have begun to gain a foothold," said Albo. "The law needs to be updated to address this new threat to public safety."
In the past year, several communities have begun to respond to the increased presence of gang activity in their neighborhoods. In December 2003, Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock) hosted the first of several town meetings devoted to the topic of gangs.
She was surprised by the reaction she received by the sparse crowd at that meeting.
"A couple of people came up to me afterward and said that we were manufacturing this issue, that it wasn't a real problem," said Bulova.
Some things have changed since that time.
"I think that within the past two years, people have become more aware of the emergence of gang activity," said Bulova, whose district includes Annandale, where visible gang graffiti last year raised the suspicion of some residents.
"I think it's a good sign [the increased awareness], and I am supportive of any attempt our legislators make to … combat the emerging gang issue," said Bulova. "I think people are more understanding now that this is a real problem."
Fairfax County police have acknowledged the situation is increasing countywide, as indicated by a report in late 2004 that identified 80 gangs with 1,500 members in the county, including 800 members in the MS-13 gang and its associated cliques.
In Burke, the situation came to light in 2004 when a 22-year-old gang member was arrested for trying to recruit a girl outside Lake Braddock Secondary School.
"There's a stronger awareness of this than I've ever seen," said Trenda Jacocks, president of the Lake Braddock Secondary School Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA). Jacocks said the Lake Braddock Coalition, a group that includes representatives from the entire Lake Braddock pyramid, has made addressing gang violence a priority.
"We're taking our children's safety seriously. Lake Braddock is a great place, and there are a lot of good things going on. Because we had the one occurrence last year, it seems we've been targeted," she said.
THE LAKE BRADDOCK and West Springfield coalitions hosted a Gang Awareness presentation on Wednesday, Jan. 26, at Irving Middle School in Springfield. A member of the Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Safe and Drug Free Section, a division of the Office of Student Services, spoke on various topics related to gang presence and recruitment.
"We're trying to find ways to get the word out to parents and families, of the signs of gangs," said Jacocks.
Albo's legislation aims to "aid in prosecuting gangs," according to Albo. The first bill, HB 1573, passed through the House of Delegates by a 94-0 vote on Jan. 20 and is currently in committee in the state Senate. It deals with the power of the Board of Education to establish dress codes that prohibit clothing that "may promote illegal gang activity." This bill "will make it much more difficult for gangs to recruit new members," said Albo.
The second bill, HB 1800, is currently in committee in the House of Delegates. It aims to amend the state code on offenses punishable by the death penalty, to add a section devoted to street gangs. This would make it a capital offense to carry out murder as directed by a member of a street gang.
The third and fourth bills, HB 2217 and HJ 573, are both in committee in the House. HB 2217 would greatly expand both areas where it is illegal for a gang to congregate, and the punishment for this activity. HJ 573 would direct the State Crime Commission to study the "characteristics and makeup of discrete criminal street gangs." This would result in forming a list of gang names and accompanying conduct and characteristics.
Albo said in his conversations with Fairfax County prosecutors, he has found that they have encountered difficulties in prosecuting gang offenders, since certain gangs are designated as such under state statute.
"You have to spend the first day [of a trial] trying to prove that MS 13 is a gang. We've been trying to prove that certain gangs that we know of as gangs are gangs by statute," said Albo. This element is also a part of HB 1800.
This would be a valuable resource for community leaders, said Bulova.
"Known gang members congregating around a school where they are trying to do recruiting would be a valuable thing for us to prevent," said Bulova. "That's something that makes people in a community fearful."
Bulova also said that state legislators should be careful about the specificity of laws directed at gangs.
"We need to be careful we are not stereotyping. Just because a group of teenagers are gathered together, we need to be careful that we're not saying they are from a gang," she said.