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Cracking down on gangs After tough laws and harsh jail terms, focus turns to discouraging new members Byline: By Jerome Burdi Staff Writer
Staff Writer Jennifer Gollan contributed to this report.
Gang violence killed fewer people in Palm Beach County last year, and investigators credit tougher laws and stiffer jail sentences. Now they're turning more attention to stopping new members from joining.
"We can't arrest our way out of it," county Violent Crimes Task Force Lt. Michael Wallace said.
Drive-by shootings with assault rifles, so common here over the past few years, are down. Gang-related homicides locally dropped in 2008 to 34, down from 44 in 2007, according to the task force.
As Palm Beach County saw a 3 percent drop in gang-related violent crime, Broward County has seen a spike in gang activity with 80 to 100 gangs operating there, up from about 50 to 75 gangs five years ago, law enforcement officials said.
Palm Beach County needs to do a better job at intervention, officials said.
Hoping to build on recent success in suppressing gang activity, the Sheriff's Office wants to respond to that need, hiring a "gang prevention coordinator" who would work as a liaison between law enforcement, youth empowerment centers and local think tanks such as the Criminal Justice Commission.
The coordinator would reach out to at-risk teens in the street and at school to convince potential gang members there are better alternatives.
"Prevention and treatment is a better option than jails and prisons," said Michael Rodriguez, executive director of the Criminal Justice Commission of Palm Beach County. "You need something to get the kids to come [to after school programs]."
If they don't take part in the programs, Rodriguez said, they can fall in with the wrong crowd.
Police Athletic Leagues offer an alternative. So do local youth-empowerment centers that offer sports, food and video games as well as computer training, coaching for job interviews and guidance on how to write a resume.
On Thursday, South Florida became the latest region in the state to launch a Gang Reduction Task Force. The task force, under the Attorney General's Office, is made up of government officials, law enforcement, nonprofit group leaders, school administrators and the business community. They're aimed at preventing gangs from growing and stopping the ones already here.
Criminal gangs have swelled in Florida to more than 1,500 with over 65,000 gang members, statistics show.
Laura Kallus, director of PanZOu Project, a North Miami Beach gang-reduction program recognized recently by the U.S. Attorney's Office for its efforts, said street outreach is the key to cutting the number of gangs and preventing their growth.
"We don't go out thinking we're going to get you out of a gang. We go out and set goals: GED or night school or vocational programs," she said. "We strongly push education and vocation."
When word got out about PanZOu's job program, some gang members were interested, Kallus said. The jobs are typically in retail or restaurants.
"Once they start earning legal money, they're off the streets," Kallus said. "And they take pride in that."
Much of the success in Palm Beach County, Wallace said, comes from state, local and federal agencies working together. Authorities are using state racketeering laws to stunt gang activities, filing charges that carry longer terms.
Last year, 12 alleged members of the Top 6 gang were arrested. Officials say the gang is connected to 14 homicides and more than 150 shootings in Palm Beach County in recent years.
Two of the Top 6 members - Jessee Thomas, 22, and Ernst Exavier, 25 - were sentenced last month to 25 years in prison on the racketeering charges.
It was the second batch of indictments from a West Palm Beach-based state grand jury formed in 2007 to focus on gang crime.
The first indictment charged 10 members of SUR-13, a southern California gang that answers to the Mexican Mafia. They were from the Westgate neighborhood west of West Palm Beach. Eight of the men have been convicted. Sentences ranged from six to 12 years in prison.
Boynton Beach police Detective Troy Raines is assigned to the county task force and won his department's Detective of the Year honor for his work on the Top 6 investigation. He said 25-year sentences show criminals the revolving-door days at the county jail are in the past.
"That hit home big time for the rest of them," he said. "Twenty-five years is a lot of time."
The remaining 10 defendants are going through the courts system, with some set for trial. Raines said some of them now are willing to cooperate with law enforcement.
Wallace agreed that the hefty sentence was a victory.
"How sexy is it now?" he asked. "We're not going to stop gang activity in Palm Beach County, but let's not make the allure of it so good."
Staff Writer Jennifer Gollan contributed to this report.
Jerome Burdi can be reached at jburdi@SunSentinel.com or 561-243-6531.
Local gang related homicides
2008 >> 34
2007 >> 44
Source: Violent Crimes Task Force
Gangs in Palm Beach County
Palm Beach County is home to about 160 gangs, mostly made up of local, neighborhood "hybrid" gangs not recognized nationally. However, there are national gangs here, too. Some of the high-profile gangs in Palm Beach County:
Top 6: A Lake Worth-based gang responsible for several homicides and shootings. The gang, which claimed to be a rap group, grew from six members in 2000 to more than 300.
Ace Click: A West Palm Beach-based gang that has been in the city since 1998 and is known for drug trafficking and violence. The gang is also known for participating in a Gangstas & Thugs video. The video series show scenes of violence and gun flaunting in West Palm Beach and other areas.
SUR-13: A gang that operated in the Westgate neighborhood west of West Palm Beach. The gang, known for robberies, drive-by shootings, beatings and drug dealing, originated in southern California and answers to a prison gang known as the Mexican Mafia.
Colors and signs
Many gangs will wear clothing and bandannas of a particular color - for example, red for Bloods and blue for Crips - to signify their common affiliation. Hand signs are common among street gangs to communicate. Symbols are formed with the fingers, hands and body to relay information, words and phrases.
Bandannas: Different colors represent specific gangs
Pants: Usually several sizes too big, worn very low around the backside
T-shirts: Baggy long shirts of a particular color
Hats: Often a specific color, with the gang name or initials displayed
Tattoos of gang names or symbols Behavior
Changes to watch for:
Suddenly changing friends
Sudden drop in grades
Change in hairstyle or clothing
Withdraws from family
Graffiti on school books, knapsacks or bedroom walls
Unexplained currency or jewelry
Drug use Whom to call about suspected gang activity:
Local police, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office or Palm Beach County Crime Stoppers: 800-458-8477
Caption: Law enforcement agencies throughout South Florida have been conducting sweeps and arresting suspected gang members involved in even minor crimes. In this case, a North Lauderdale man is searched after investigators received information that gang members were at a house. Michael Laughlin, Sun Sentinel Jashua Sa-Ra, right, leads a group of pre-teen and teenage students during a drumming lesson at the Boynton Beach Youth Empowerment Center on Friday. Community leaders and law enforcement officials stress the need for programs like this and those run by the Police Athletic League to keep youngsters occupied, make them feel productive and help them stay out of trouble.
Robert Mayer, Correspondent A bag containing about 5.9 grams of crack cocaine is found in a gang member's car in Pompano Beach by Broward Sheriff's Gang Task Force members. Michael Laughlin, Sun Sentinel