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Ganging Up on Gangs

City appoints its first gang-prevention coordinator.

For Michael Mackey, preventing gang-related crime is about being proactive — giving youths options before they are sucked into a life of delinquency and violence. That’s why he recently has been named as the city’s first gang prevention and intervention coordinator.

“It’s about offering a better deal,” Mackey said. “Kids need positive direction and feedback.”

As the city’s new point man on reducing gang crime, Mackey hopes to offer job training, mentoring and fellowship. He has been charged with coordinating all of the city’s services and agencies toward a single goal: stopping gang violence before it happens. It’s a tough job, one that Mackey says he’s up to.

“My concentration will be on prevention and intervention,” Mackey said. “Some of these resources already exist, it’s just a matter of connecting people with what they need.”

A native of Lenox, Mass., Mackey studied psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst before embarking on a career of helping troubled youth. He moved to Virginia in 1992 to work at a group home in Alexandria. Soon afterward, he became a probation officer with the city’s Juvenile Court. Late last year, he applied to become the city’s first gang-prevention coordinator.

<b>THREE GANGS CURRENTLY OPERATE</b> within the boundaries of Alexandria: Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13), the Latin Homies and the South Side Locos. Traditionally, these gangs have been comprised of exclusively Salvadoran members. But that’s changing. According to Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter, who specializes in prosecuting gang-related crimes, traditionally exclusive gangs are slowly becoming more inclusive.

“Members of other Spanish-speaking cultures are increasingly finding their way into these Salvadoran gangs,” Porter said. “So the make-up of these groups is changing.”

Prosecuting gang-related crimes poses a special burden for prosecutors, who must present additional evidence to prove that gang rivalries and pressures were an important influence in the crime. Frequently, this is accomplished by establishing that gang signs were flashed during the commission of a crime or gang-related slogans were uttered during an attack. Under Virginia law, a “criminal street gang” is defined as a group that has three or more people with a common name or insignia that has committed two or more predicate criminal acts.

“The trend is toward younger people participating in gang-related crimes,” Porter said. “A significant portion of the people who are involved in these crimes are under the age of 20.”

In 2005, Porter successfully convicted 11 people of gang participation — including four juveniles. Most of these crimes were committed in Arlandria and the West End of Alexandria.

“If we are really going to control this, we’ve got to stop kids from getting involved in the first place,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney S. Randolph Sengel. “We’re fortunate that the problem is at a low level, but we’ve got to remain vigilant to prevent it from getting worse.”

<b>THE CITY HAS BEEN</b> actively working to stop gang-related crimes for years. Initial efforts focused on law enforcement and prosecution. But since 2003, when City Council created a special task force to head off a growing problem, prevention has become the dominant strategy. The task force has been charged with creating new strategies to approach a growing problem.

“The tell-tale signs such as graffiti, assaults and infiltration in our schools are there and very real,” said Councilman Ludwig Gaines, who is a co-chairman of the task force. “Now is not the time for a head-in-the-sand approach. We’d be foolish to think we don’t have real gang concerns in Alexandria.”

Gaines says that the best way to work against gang violence is to be proactive and vigilant.

“Our primary objective here must be to ensure safe neighborhoods and protect our residents, including at-risk youth,” Gaines said. “Our youth desperately need alternatives — places and spaces to participate in positive constructive activity such as sports, job training, community building and other educational and recreational activities.”

Councilman Rob Krupicka, who is the other co-chairman of the task force, agreed, saying that the city been successful in combating the problem. But he says that more needs to be done.

“We are fortunate to have an outstanding police force with deep gang expertise, but we must always be vigilant,” he said. “Alexandria's goal should be no gangs within the city. In order to accomplish that, we have to work locally and regionally.”

Krupicka said that combating future gang-related crime has to begin with stopping problems before they begin.

“Gangs prey on young children, sometimes in elementary school, to recruit new members,” he said. “We should also have a zero-tolerance policy for graffiti with the goal of removing all graffiti within 24 hours.”