‘We have a gang problem.’ Fulton DA seeks solutions through collaboration

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Gangs commit 75 to 80 percent of violent crime in the area

State and local officials gathered at Atlanta Metropolitan State College on Wednesday to seek solutions to gun violence, gangs and criminal activity in Fulton County.

“It’s a collaborative solution,” Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis said during her second annual “Full Force Fulton” public safety summit. “We have problems in our housing, which is why we brought up the issues of housing. We have problems in the school system. We have law enforcement that doesn’t have the resources that they need. Each of these things we have to tackle and address, which is why you have all the community partners here, because we need their expertise and dedication from each of these areas.”

During the summit, county law enforcement agencies met with elected officials and discussed issues including gang violence and human trafficking.

“If we don’t stop this, we are in the process of losing an entire generation,” Willis said. “We are just getting to the point where people admit that here in Fulton County, we have a gang problem.”

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Willis said gang activity is spread throughout metro Atlanta, with at least 50,000 active gang members. Gangs commit 75 to 80 percent of violent crime in the area, even inside prisons.

“We got a problem. It goes from the streets all the way to the prison. This is not to disparage anyone; this is to show how deeply rooted the problem is and we’ve got to work together to resolve (it),” Willis said.

Of particular concern, she said, is that suspects being arrested and prosecuted in gang cases are getting younger and younger.

“Every time we can turn a child around, it’s the opposite of frustrating, it’s encouraging. We know that we are turning children around with the right programming,” she said. “We cannot prosecute our way out of this which is why we need to make sure our school systems are functioning at their highest possibility and everyone is involved.”

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

A trend the DA’s office has noticed is that older gang members recruit younger people by offering them music careers, money, jewelry and fame. Aakeem Woodard, director of juvenile programming at the DA’s office, said they are trying to get to those children before gang members do.

“It’s hurting to see how young they are right now. Our goal is to catch them before (gang members) catch them. Just like (gangs) are recruiting out on the streets, our department is going to also be recruiting for success,” Woodard said. “There are other alternatives to being in a gang, carrying around a gun. Most times, we find our kids in gangs because they have nobody else to care about them.”

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Gun violence continues to concern officials following a deadly couple of hours in Atlanta, where two people were killed and multiple injured in a recent spate of six separate shootings.

“These guns are getting into the hands of young people,” Willis said. “Regular citizens are leaving guns in their cars; we know that is the number one thing that is being stolen out of cars. Sometimes, as a community, we have to take responsibility towards arming people who have no business with a gun.”

The summit also focused on an increase in human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children. Deputy DA of Human Trafficking and ICE Unit Earnelle Winfrey said human trafficking has become one of the largest money maker for organized crime, behind only guns and drugs.

“We have to work together if we are to win the war for our children who are being trafficked, who are being exploited,” she said. “Fulton County is not exempt from this; Atlanta is not exempt from this.”

Willis said she plans to hold similar summits every year she is in office.