FBI special agent Buddy Early remembers a moment a few years ago when it was clear to him that gang activity had fundamentally changed in Georgia.
Agents discovered a “roll call” of the notorious Chicago-based Gangster Disciples. It listed nationally-affiliated members in 42 cities all over the state. Georgia had always had gangs, but they were mostly neighborhood groups. For law enforcement, the roll call helped reveal a new reality: they were now dealing with members of powerful nationwide criminal syndicates.
Early, the FBI’s top gang agent in Atlanta, said investigators soon learned that all those local groups were reporting and paying dues to national leaders — including Larry Hoover, the gang’s founding member who has been in federal prison since 1973.
Officials say other national gangs have also moved into Georgia, a trend that is causing alarm particularly in rural parts of the state ill equipped to combat it.
Now, numerous law enforcement agencies — from the FBI to the GBI to small town police departments — are coming together in a statewide initiative to combat what officials call a rising gang “crisis.”
Gov. Brian Kemp, elected on the strength of conservative rural voters, has made the fight against gangs a priority. The effort could change change how law enforcement and criminal justice work in much of Georgia and could increase the state’s prison population. At least symbolically, an uptick in the number of Georgians incarcerated would represent a new direction in criminal justice policy coming from the governor’s office. While former Gov. Nathan Deal focused on reducing the number of non-violent offenders locked up, Kemp is given more to talk of locking up the violent ones.
Statistics on gangs are hard to come by, so it’s difficult to quantify the purported increase in gang crime. But in a recent GBI survey of more than 500 Georgia law enforcement agencies, most said their biggest frustration was gangs. Topping the list were Ghostface Gangsters, Gangster Disciples, Bloods and Crips.
The state is pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money into work against the groups.
GBI Director Vic Reynolds started an anti-gang task force. The GBI is building up a database of gang members and associates. The Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia hired a seasoned gang prosecutor to assist district attorneys’ offices in bringing more cases using Georgia’s long-standing anti-gang statute. Because such cases are typically complex, officials say the help will be especially of use in less populous areas of the state where police and prosecutors have fewer resources.
The result of the coordinated crackdown could be more gang prosecutions than ever in Georgia and more prison time for those convicted. It isn’t illegal in Georgia to simply be in a gang, but people convicted of committing a crime for or in coordination with a gang can get five to 15 years added to their prison sentence.
Critics wonder if the state is pursuing the right course.
Even with nationally-touted criminal justice reforms, Georgia leads the nation when it comes to the number of people under correctional control. There are 527,000 people in prison, on parole or on probation, according to the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative. (More than 400,000 of the total are on probation.)
Marissa Dodson of the Southern Center for Human Rights said she is worried the anti-gang push could drive the state farther into the lead.
“Georgia’s response should not be to invest taxpayer money in more prosecutions,” said Dodson, the criminal justice nonprofit’s public policy director.
Instead, she said Georgia should try to prevent people from joining gangs through education and behavioral health treatment.
How cops say the ‘crisis’ started
Gangs aren’t new to any part of Georgia. What’s new, officials agree, is the national connections gangs now have.
The shift to national control happened over the last eight to 10 years as the bigger groups — with the help of social media — absorbed tons of neighborhood gangs, authorities said. The result of the affiliation gives locals better access to drug supplies, guns and plenty of comrades to call on all over the country, according to the FBI.
In Middle Georgia’s Baldwin County, for instance, officials have seen more gang violence in the past five years. It’s calmed down since a couple dozen alleged gang members were arrested in 2017, but the problem isn’t solved. Sheriff Bill Massee believes the long tail of the Great Recession is partly to blame for the trouble.
“It was a depression here,” the sheriff said.
After many partial closures, Central State Hospital, once the largest mental institution in the world, finally shuttered. A handful of nearby prisons closed. A factory moved to Mexico.
The neighborhoods around Central State decayed as people had to move away to find work. Family homes became cheap rentals. Some people got desperate. Some took advantage. National gang leaders came offering opportunity. By 2015, when rival gangsters were trading fire every few days, Massee realized the county had a terrible problem.
One still-unsolved shooting killed an innocent woman watching TV at home with her kids.
It all frustrates Capt. Brad King. Behind the wheel of his mighty pickup, the Baldwin sheriff’s deputy just barely smiled as he stared at some young men huddled beneath a shade tree.
King believes the group — 100 feet away and sweating in the summer heat — are members of the 1831 Piru Bloods, one of the groups involved in the drive-bys. King said he recognized one man, who was eyeing the truck, as a suspect in some of the violence.
“What’s sad,” the deputy said, “is I sent his daddy to prison.”
King hopes the state initiative will help investigators get the tools they need to win the war against gangs, but it hasn’t yet helped with this young man. The evidence against him is too weak for an arrest. And so the best King can do is play this little game of chicken. After about a minute, King drove away, and the men raised their hands to wave goodbye.
Why officials want in on the crackdown
The other day, a woman outside a convenience store was asked about gangs. She was near Central State, but she could’ve been in any neighborhood dogged by gang violence.
She stared blankly and let out a tense breath.
“Those of us with concerns keep those concerns to ourselves because we don’t want no trouble,” she said and promptly walked away.
Officials say they want to be the voice for such people, but doing so isn’t always easy. Gang cases are notoriously time-consuming and complex to put together, said Augusta District Attorney Natalie Paine. An investigator might have to read thousands of pages of social media posts or listen to hours of jailhouse phone calls to glean the right detail and draw connections with gang members.
She said she’s already making use of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council’s gang expert to train her assistant prosecutors to use the state’s anti-gang statute. Paine finds the statute useful, particularly because it allows prosecutors to illustrate defendants’ sometimes complex motives.
What’s at stake is clear to Paine. She said she sees young people trading potential for prison, life for death with their blood leaking on pavement.
“It’s sad because I see promise in these kids,” she said.
In recent weeks, she’s felt similar sadness for the city of Waynesboro. South of Augusta, the city has a population of 5,700 and is known as “The Bird Dog Capitol of the World.”
Now local leaders are reeling in the wake of the shooting deaths of two teens. Both shootings are suspected to be gang-related, Paine said.
Mayor Greg Carswell knew the second victim, T’Rique McCollough, 19, from church. T’Rique, who was about to go into the Marines, used to grab a hug and joke around when he saw Carswell in town.
Then, after a Fourth of July shooting, the mayor found himself at the hospital with the teen’s mom as she learned that her only child was gone. The mother bawled. Carswell, a father of seven, thought, This has got to stop.
Complications and mixed feelings
Any statewide initiative is going to have complications, and this one isn’t an exception.
For one, those who are convicted and sentenced for gang crimes will do time in Georgia prisons, which, officials have long acknowledged, already have their own gang problems. Ghostface Gangsters, the gang most mentioned by Georgia cops complaining about gangs, developed largely in prisons.
“We have to deal with our prison system – we have people literally running gangs from our prison system,” the governor said at a recent summit meeting on gangs. Kemp hasn’t gone into specifics about how to do that yet, but Butch Miller, the top Republican in the state Senate, said he’s working on legislation.
Gang cases are also tough for the state’s public defenders, said C. Wilson DuBuose, a former president of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council. Many have multiple defendants, requiring more attorneys and sometimes separate trials.
Then there’s the moral dilemma some officials feel in sending especially young defendants away for long prison stays.
In Augusta, the DA said she knows a teen who’s been drawn into gang life. After his friend died in shooting, Paine listened to the 16-year-old cry and tried to get him to enroll in Georgia Youth Challenge, a program that helps young people find their way. But something — perhaps a chaotic home life — kept him from ever showing up, even when Paine offered him a ride.
In mid-July, the DA found out the boy had been charged with a home invasion.
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