Warning: Gang problem is growing

Community prosecution is a strategy I wholeheartedly embrace as evidenced by the national prominence of our own program. I was happy to accept the invitation.

San Diego is a beautiful city with many positive attributes. Unfortunately, during my stay, the attractiveness of the city was temporarily marred by the remnants of an ugly event.

Two weeks before my arrival, a middle-aged African-American executive was shot and killed at a local shopping mall. According to law enforcement sources, the murder was categorized as "gang-related."

It seems the unwitting executive had stumbled into the wrong "neighborhood" wearing the wrong "colors." As they say, ignorance of the law — in this case street law — was no excuse.

The penalty for the victim's otherwise harmless misstep was a brutal death at the hands of several teenage gang members.

Anxiety remained in the wake of this tragic event, particularly among the locals who readily cautioned unsuspecting tourists like me.

As I exited my hotel for a walking tour of the bustling seaport city, my enthusiasm was quickly tempered with the concern of the door attendant who asked, "Sir, are you traveling alone?"

Suddenly, as an African-American man, I began to wonder whether the simple pleasure of taking a walk in a beautiful city might place my life in jeopardy. What if I happened upon the territory of a turf-conscious gang? What if my clothing just happened to match the colors of a rival gang?

Those words from the attendant triggered a sudden, sobering fear, which stuck with me throughout my seaside tour.

At that moment, I made a silent promise to myself: as Fulton County district attorney, I would try my best to ensure that no visitor to or resident of Fulton County ever had similar fearful feelings due to criminal gangs operating in our community.

Sadly, recent gang activity in our community forces me to now make public my silent promise in order to hold myself accountable.

It is not my intention to create panic in our tourism industry. I can state with absolute confidence that Atlanta and Fulton County are among the safest sites for tourists in this country.

Nor am I here to plead for stricter laws against gang members or to petition local or state governments for additional police officers and prosecutors to thwart the gang menace.

Today my task is a simple one — to issue a warning. I want to warn our political, business, educational, community and religious leaders to be aware of a troublesome trend my office is currently facing — the growth of criminal gangs in Fulton County.

In 2007, for the first time in the history of the district attorney's office, I created an official gang unit, staffed with a single lawyer and investigator.

We organized the unit around the investigation of a violent street gang called the International Robbing Crew (IRC).

With the capable assistance of a city of Atlanta homicide detective loaned to our office by the Atlanta Police Department, we were able to identify 12 members of this gang who were responsible for 11 murders over a two-year period.

The case resulted in a 60-count indictment and marked the first-time use under my administration of the Georgia Gang Statute. On May 4, all six of the initial group of gang members prosecuted were convicted of murder.

The judge immediately sentenced the gang members to life plus 70 years. The remaining gang members will be tried later this year.

This year, I added another attorney and a legal assistant to our gang unit. Together, this four-person team is now prosecuting more than 30 cases involving 71 defendants.

These cases cover 17 murders in our community alone, not to mention homicides occurring in other jurisdictions. Some might assume that gang problems only exist in southwest Atlanta. This could not be further from the truth.

In fact, law enforcement agencies throughout Fulton County are now facing similar problems with gangs.

Atlanta police and south county law enforcement officers have identified more than 100 active gangs including the IRC, 30 Deep, Gangsta Disciples and Nine Trey Bloods.

The Riverside and Westside Locos and Sur 13 are just a few of the gangs challenging north Fulton law enforcement agencies.

Although many of the gangs are locally grown, several gang members have migrated from New York, New Jersey, California, North Carolina and New Orleans.

The gangs encompass both male and female members. I am particularly disturbed by the tender ages of some gang members. One of the principle shooters in the IRC trial was a 16-year-old boy.

In November, my office indicted members of the Nine Trey Bloods for the murder of a 17-year-old boy, his dog and the attempted murder of his mother. The shooter in this case was a 14-year-old middle school gang member.

One of the fundamental questions we must address as a community is "Why are our youngsters attracted to this gang activity?"

In the best interest of our children, we must strengthen and intensify gang prevention strategies in our community. My feeling is we must do it now.

Atlanta and Fulton County are great communities. We have faced tremendous obstacles — from Sherman's fire to segregated downtown lunch counters; from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination to the Fulton County Courthouse shootings — our community has rebounded with greater strength and resilience.

We are now faced with another challenge. Let us pull together so criminal gangs in Fulton County do not recreate my San Diego experience.

Paul L. Howard Jr. is the Fulton County district attorney.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.