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Online chat with Washington County Gang Prevention Task Force

July 16, 2006

The Herald-Mail held a live chat on Tuesday, July 11, with members of the Washington County Gang Prevention Task Force. What follows is an edited version of that session.




Moderator: Today, we're chatting with four members of the Washington County Gang Prevention Task Force. They include Cheryl Mitchell-Jones, Washington County Board of Education; Ryan Shifflet, Washington County Sheriff's Department; Todd Dunkle of the Hagerstown Police Department; and Arthur Smith, chief of the Hagerstown Police Department.

Question: Could you discuss, realistically, the threat that gangs CURRENTLY pose to citizens of Hagerstown? Is this a real problem, or a method for the city to get more money at the state or federal level? Would you also discuss how to properly identify a gang member (Blood, MS13, etc.) or gang activity? Finally, is it your opinion that gang activity is caused in any way to the close proximity of the prisons in the county?

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Committee Response: Currently, the threat to the average citizen is very low. The reason that the Gang Prevention Task Force was formed was to keep it that way. There are gang members in Washington County. This is documented in numerous ways. They do commit crimes - primarily narcotics distribution, and experience around the country has proven that the best strategy is a prevention strategy and not to wait for major gang violence to occur. A member is most likely identified by a combination of clothing color, peers and associates, tattoos and graffiti.

The prisons play a significant role in that many of our narcotics violators adopt or renew gang affiliations as a survival strategy inside the institutions. They may or may not continue gang affiliations and activity when released into the community. Washington County is the No. 2 release point for identified gang members back into the community from the department of corrections, second only to Baltimore and Baltimore County.

Educational presentations are available for identification of possible gang activity through Hagerstown Police and the Washington County Sheriff's Department.

Grants are available from time to time from the federal and state governments for gang education, prevention and suppression.

Question: How many documented cases of gang violence have there been in the last three years?

Committee: We have had no "documented" gang-related violence for the past three years in Washington County. Police departments are taking steps to develop a classification system under the umbrella of the Gang Prevention Task Force. There have been instances of violence between known drug dealers with gang affiliations, however, gang activity could not be documented as a cause of the crimes. Instances of gang-related violence have taken place in other jurisdictions in our region. Our answer does not include activity inside the Department of Corrections facilities in Washington County.

Question: What areas are these gangs in, so I know what area to look for gang activities? I'm new to the area.

Committee: Gang members clearly travel as they wish. Examples of documented activity have taken place in state parks, shopping centers and virtually any area in which people may congregate. The important thing to look for is the distinctive clothing, tattoos, mannerisms and graffiti. Contact either Officer Dunkle or Deputy Shifflet for information on the next public educational presentation. Contact information will be printed at the end of this chat.

Question: Is there anything being done to combat the probability that convicted criminals released from prison will have a negative effect on the community? Is there some sort of program within the prisons to discourage criminals from joining or rejoining gangs either in prison or after their release?

Committee: This is a good question, but is better answered by Departments of Corrections and Parole and Probation. Both institutions are very cooperative in terms of sharing gang information with law enforcement. Specific prevention programs are not well-known to this group.

Question: Why was this group formed?

Committee: As a result of the concerns of recent gang activity in this region, the Washington County Gang Prevention Task Force was formed in November of 2005. This Task Force includes Parole and Probation, Department of Corrections, Washington County Public Schools employees, Department of Social Services, Juvenile Services, the Washington County Health Department, community leaders and elected officials, all of which join law enforcement (HPD and WCSD) in this endeavor.

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