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Mark Holtzman: Chief says HPD getting tough on gangs in city

September 07, 2013|By MARK HOLTZMAN

Have you ever heard of arresting people before they commited a crime? Yes, but only in science-fiction movies.  The American criminal justice system does not work that way.

Therefore, much of police work is reactive. 

But what about the other side of law enforcement? What do we do to reduce and suppress criminal activity? Specifically, what do we do about gangs in our city? The answer — especially when confronting potentially violent criminal gangs — is we do everything allowable by law.

Take for example the April 2013 violence near Bethel Street.  The Hagerstown Police Department (HPD) reacted quickly and efficiently — so efficiently that our fast deployment to another address headed off a retaliatory, potentially lethal shooting.

Here are the facts: On that afternoon, a call for shots fired had HPD flooding the crime area. We located a victim, who was shot in the leg, and a suspected shooter. We identified both as gang members. We deployed Western Maryland Crime Lab personnel to gather evidence. Our existing intelligence led us to observe other gang locations and houses.

At this critical moment, our intelligence and training paid dividends. We conducted a traffic stop of a vehicle leaving from a known gang house. We stopped gang members, armed with pistol and shotgun, from potentially carrying out a drive-by retaliatory shooting. We confiscated guns and arrested gang members, one of whom was another shooting victim from the initial incident. 

Later that evening, a second call for shots fired came from an area adjacent to the initial crime scene. We again reacted, widening our surveillance of gang locations. We again deployed crime scene personnel and initiated a comprehensive investigation.

By night’s end, we had arrested several members of one gang and began investigations that culminated in indicting 16 gang members from both sides of the initial shooting. At this writing, all members of both factions are under arrest.

How were we able to react so quickly and stave off a potentially lethal gang action? How were we able to identify and arrest people — who might perform lethal acts — that night? We did it through strong intelligence, patrol and detective work, and coordination. 

No, we can’t arrest people before the crime, but we can be prepared. We know who they are, who their associates are and where they live and hang out. Armed with this information, we can attempt to suppress them from committing crimes. But when they do, we can quickly identify and arrest them — stopping them from committing more crimes.

The gathering and processing of such information requires motivated, coordinated, consistent police work. It requires dedicated people.  Every day, the gang landscape changes, and every day we need to update our information. This information is not easy to obtain. It takes careful, thorough, observant patrolling, continued detection and information dissemination. It requires coordination and intelligence-sharing with other agencies and associations including MARGIN  (Middle Atlantic Region Gang Intelligence Network), Washington County Sheriff’s Department and Maryland State Police.

And we make our presence known. We do this by identifying and interviewing gang members, and by regularly patrolling locations known to be frequented by gangs and gang members. We do all the law allows.

But we cannot do this alone. You, our residents, are also important members of this team. We need your help to update information to keep neighborhoods safe. Your tips and input are highly appreciated and valued.

Gangs have been in America since the 18th century. The Boston Tea Party’s Sons of Liberty was a gang. Daniel Day Lewis’ movie “Gangs of New York” depicted gang violence in 19th century American cities. 

However, because they’ve always been here does not mean police cannot help keep streets and citizens safe from gang violence and the fear of crime. We use all resources and proven best police practices in dealing with this problem. We do all the law and the American criminal justice system allows within the parameters of our policing powers. 

Mark Holtzman is chief of the Hagerstown Police Department.

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