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Program aimed at fighting gangs

August 16, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

Hagerstown City Police are in the midst of increasing anti-gang efforts by designating some officers as gang experts and consolidating gang intelligence in regular police briefing sessions, Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith said last week.

"We're trying to study it, catalogue it, have a database" of gang information, Smith said. "It's kind of aimed at keeping it from becoming a major problem."

Smith said the effort should help to lock up more criminals and to better understand the local drug trade.

Smith said there are people in Hagerstown who have been identified as being members of nationally known gangs, but there doesn't appear to be systematic violence associated with those gang members. Smith said the new focus on gang members is an effort to avoid that.

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The department began considering the program last year, and within the last few months began "roll-call" training, Smith said. A few officers have taken extra training to learn about gangs, and in turn, they are updating patrol officers at the regular meetings, or roll call, at the beginning of their shifts.

The patrol officers are collecting data, including clothing styles or graffiti they have seen that could be identified as gang-related, Smith said.

He would not elaborate on specifically what officers were looking for but said police are looking to find out "who's related to who and how they're related."

Smith said he believes gang affiliation in Hagerstown is closely identified with the drug trade, and while he said the drug trade is not dominated by gangs, understanding gangs can help unravel some drug connections.

The Washington County Narcotics Task Force would be one of the main beneficiaries of the information, Smith said.

NTF Director Pete Lazich said he thought the initiative would be helpful.

"There have been turf wars in the past" between gangs in Hagerstown, Lazich said. While there hasn't been any indication of a gang flare-up, he agreed that there is always a potential.

"I think it's a great program to get started before there is a major problem," Lazich said. Whether police are investigating drug activity or violent crimes, "any intel that you get ... can be valuable later on."

Smith said he believes that Hagerstown's gang affiliations are mostly imports from other regions of the country, such as New York or New Jersey, or inmates released from the state prisons south of Hagerstown.

Smith said those with gang affiliations who come to Hagerstown after prison seem to lose their gang affiliations over time or move out of the area.

The Washington County Detention Center counts gang members among its population.

In 2002, the detention center held 57 known gang members, of which 21 were Crips and 16 were Bloods, according to jail information.

Smith said he doesn't think residents should worry about gangs.

"What the general public should be worried about is the demand around here for crack cocaine. ... There's always gangs, there's always gonna be gangs, but even if it's just one small part (of the drug trade) it's still a significant part," Smith said.

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