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Terrorism, gangs take priority at legislative talks

August 06, 2004|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

WINCHESTER, VA. - Terrorism threats continue to concern officials in Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia, but authorities learned Thursday that gangs are a growing problem.

The issue was discussed during the 17th annual Quad State Legislative Conference, at which lawmakers and government officials from the four-state area meet to discuss common issues and problems.

Much of the discussion at Thursday's conference, which was held at Shenandoah University in Winchester, centered on how to protect the area from possible terrorist attacks. Lawmakers and government officials said they are trying to prevent terrorist attacks by identifying targets that might be attractive to terrorists and by setting up tip lines so citizens can report suspicious activity.

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Another problem area officials are starting to face is "violent gangs," said U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va.

Wolf specifically mentioned West Virginia as one of the areas being favored by gangs. He would not elaborate after his speech, but said the gangs were not connected to any terrorist activity.

Jefferson County (W.Va.) Sheriff Everett "Ed" Boober, who was not at the conference, said when contacted later that gangs are moving into Jefferson County from Northern Virginia areas such as Loudoun County, Berryville and Fairfax.

The gangs are using the area most often to conduct meetings. They have been meeting in areas such as Millville, W.Va., Charles Town, W.Va., and Harpers Ferry, W.Va., Boober said. Police know that gangs have been in the area because signs that symbolize their groups have been drawn on walls and buildings in the areas, Boober said.

Boober said the gangs prefer the area because it is peaceful.

Although the gangs do not appear to be committing crimes in the area, they will commit crimes such as theft to fund their operations, Boober said. Potential gang members also will commit crimes ranging from destruction of property to murder as a ritual to join the groups, Boober said.

"This is just not 'West Side Story' with graffiti on the wall," Wolf said at the Quad State Legislative Conference.

Del. Charles Trump, R-Berkeley, said he was "quite alarmed" by what he heard at the conference. Trump said he would like to find ways to give law enforcement new resources to deal with the threats.

Regarding terrorism, lawmakers and government officials talked about work that still lies ahead in better securing the region.

One area is radio communications.

Officials in Maryland and West Virginia said they still use radio systems that don't enable police and rescue personnel to communicate.

If police and rescue personnel respond to an emergency along a river, they can shout at each other from across the water but cannot communicate by radio, said Randy Coleman, assistant secretary for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.

"We've got to fix that," Coleman said.

Officials said converting radio systems to correct the problem is expensive.

Officials talked about how to take a more regional approach to protecting the area against terrorism.

A county may have a great emergency response unit for terrorism attacks, but often those rescue squads cannot cross county lines, said Cynthia F. Soltis, program coordinator for Quad State Emergency Preparedness.

Soltis said her organization wants to help lead an effort to reverse laws that prohibit rescue units from crossing county lines.

She said the agency also wants to offer emergency preparedness training programs to rescue officials in the region.

Although other issues such as tourism, economic development and transportation were on the agenda for the conference, terrorism and related issues were the "front-burner issues," said Maryland state Sen. Donald Munson, R-Washington.

"People have no idea how serious the threat is," Munson said.

Pennsylvania was represented at the conference by state Sen. Terry Punt, R-Franklin, and state Rep. Patrick Fleagle, R-Franklin.

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