Georgia’s gang situation ‘getting worse,’ investigators say

A tattooed MS-13 gang member is arrested. Attorney General Jeff Sessions targeted the gang as a priority and President Donald Trump has pointed to this gang’s violence to symbolize the risks of illegal immigration.

A tattooed MS-13 gang member is arrested. Attorney General Jeff Sessions targeted the gang as a priority and President Donald Trump has pointed to this gang’s violence to symbolize the risks of illegal immigration.

As one gubernatorial candidate promises to crack down on gang activity, some of Georgia’s gang investigators are saying the state is, indeed, facing a “gang problem” — one they say is made worse by public officials’ refusal to acknowledge it.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, one of five Republican frontrunners for governor, has made curtailing gang-related crimes a key issue for his campaign. “We have a gang problem in Georgia. It’s a crisis,” Kemp said in an April 10 appeal to voters in Marietta Square. “Every week there’s another violent crime, another drug bust, another drive-by shooting, another murder.”

But determining whether a crisis actually exists is no simple task because official gang data is, at best, sketchy. In his appeal, Kemp cited statistics from 2011, the last year the FBI published a gang threat assessment. The federal government has since discontinued funding for the assessment.

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Sgt. Ryan Foles of the Coweta County Sheriff’s Office said that lack of data poses a challenge for law enforcement agencies trying to predict and respond to gang activity. Foles is the western region’s vice president for the Georgia Gang Investigators Association (GGIA), a statewide organization of criminal justice professionals who work to prevent gang-related crimes. The region he oversees covers most of metro Atlanta.

Foles said without the benefit of a national report, the association has had to conduct its own statewide survey for the first time this year, sending more than 500 surveys to law enforcement agencies throughout the state. The full report isn’t scheduled to be released until this summer, but investigators said even though only 30 percent of agencies involved in the survey have reported their data back so far, the results are already a cause for concern.

“The light has not been shone specifically on how bad the problem is,” said GGIA president Jim Callaway, who is also chief of police for the city of Morrow.

The survey has already identified more than 35,000 individual gang members throughout the state — a number the association expects to rise beyond 50,000 by the time all the data comes in. These estimates come from a combination of gang-related arrests and intelligence files on known gang members throughout the state. Foles said the numbers are ever-shifting because of the transience of gang life — gang members die and move around, and new members are recruited.

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Callaway estimates there are more than 1,000 separate gangs in metro Atlanta alone, and that between 70 and 80 percent of all violent crimes and property crimes are gang-connected.

What’s more, Callaway said the problem “is getting worse.” He said existing gang violence is being exacerbated by public officials’ hesitance to acknowledge that gang-related crimes exist in their communities.

“People have had their heads in the sand and have denied the truth for so many years,” Callaway said.

Their reluctance stems from a fear that acknowledging gang activity might cause residents to move away and stop doing business in their area, Callaway said. He called that idea “misguided,” saying it can prevent gang-related crimes from being prosecuted.

“When you admit that you have an issue in your city, in your county, in your state, and then you attack it aggressively, that should give the public a greater sense of ease that the situation is going to be handled,” Callaway said.

Foles credited part of the apparent increase in gang activity to the “glorification” of gang culture in Atlanta’s increasingly prominent hip-hop and rap scene. Foles cited rappers like 6IX9INE, Cardi B and Kendrick Lamar — who recently won a Pulitzer prize in music – as artists he sees as glorifying gang imagery in their lyrics and music videos. To illustrate his point, he pointed to the music video for 6IX9INE’s song “Billy,” which has about 82 million views on YouTube.

“Everything in that video is strictly built around gang culture,” Foles said.

A reporter uses his telephone to photograph a poster showing suspected members of MS-13 in Los Angeles in 2017. ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Part of the investigators’ role at the GGIA is educating parents, teachers and church leaders to recognize gang symbols, like those they say can be found in music videos, and then steer young people away from them. Adult authority figures can be vital in preventing gang violence, they said. Even kids from well-off socioeconomic backgrounds can be at-risk of joining gangs because the gangs offer them “everything we need as humans,” as Callaway put it.

“The need to belong to something; the need for love, affection, approval; the need to accomplish something; the need to work to do something—they get that self-actualization from the gangs,” he said.

Part of the investigators’ ongoing struggle in recent years has been the emergence of new kinds of gangs. The investigators said traditional gangs like the Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings and Gangster Disciples — gangs that formed along racial, ethnic or cultural lines — have a huge hold in the Atlanta area, but now police agencies are starting to see “hybrid gangs,” which are more diverse and localized than traditional gangs, forming in individual neighborhoods and schools.

These gangs tend to be more capricious than traditional gangs; they may adopt the colors or symbols of a national gang, and their members may switch their allegiances or have membership in multiple gangs.

Foles, whose agency recently had to contend with a highly-publicized neo-Nazi rally in Newnan, also cited the emerging threat of hate groups. He said law enforcement officials haven’t had much discussion yet about how to classify extremist groups like the National Socialist Movement within the larger scope of Georgia’s gangs, but their activity is an increasing concern.

“It’s starting to get to a point where it’s bubbling over more now than it used to,” Callaway said.

Gang crime in Georgia has received attention from lawmakers before. Kemp’s urgent rhetoric on gangs echoes the language of Georgia’s Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act, a 2010 statute that empowered the courts to punish gang members with harsher sentences. That legislation, like Kemp, also declared Georgia to be “in a state of crisis.”

Kemp’s “Stop and Dismantle” initiative includes, among other things, a provision for a statewide “gang strike team,” an undefined amount of funding for a criminal street gang database and a plan to vest more power in the Attorney General’s Office to prosecute gangs across jurisdictions.

But while Callaway and Foles appear to agree with Kemp’s assertion that Georgia has a gang problem, they disagree with him on one key issue — Kemp ties Georgia’s gang problem inextricably to illegal immigration.

The “Stop and Dismantle” portion of Kemp’s campaign website dedicates its first two paragraphs to emphasizing a need to mitigate illegal immigration — before it even mentions gangs. Part of the candidate’s anti-gang initiative calls for a registry of undocumented criminals, and it also includes a plan for a gang strike team that would “assist communities under siege by groups like MS-13.” MS-13, a gang that originated in Los Angeles, has a primarily Central American membership.

Foles and Callaway, however, say undocumented immigrants aren’t the primary threat in Georgia. Undocumented gang members may have been an issue 20 years ago, they said, but now, most Latino gang members in Georgia are American citizens.

“Your hybrids, your Bloods and Crips far outnumber immigrant gangs,” Callaway said.

As far as solving the gang problem goes, the investigators said it’s often a matter of enforcing existing laws. Georgia’s gang statute puts longer sentences on crimes that are committed as part of a gang’s activity, and that can be a powerful deterrent.

But in the end, they said, law enforcement can only go so far — it takes education and partnership with local leaders. Foles said he’s often had one-on-one conversations with students to warn them away from the gangs they’ve gotten themselves involved with, but he said can’t always act as both a social worker and an investigator. That’s where parents, schools, churches and mentors step in, he said.

Foles said he’s seen this work in his own community. When his agency was deliberate about partnering with community leaders, he saw gang-related crimes decrease, but when the agency relaxed that effort, there was an uptick again.

“You cannot arrest your way out of it,” Foles said.