Cracking down on gangsAs criminal groups grow across the county, police are making more arrests and teaching residents how to protect themselves
Beset with what they called rampant gang violence in the 1990s, Pembroke Pines police cracked down and believed the problem was over by 2000. They were so confident, they stopped tracking gang arrests.
But in September, after three teenagers were stabbed within two weeks, police changed their policy and have since logged 105 gang-related arrests. Gang activity is resurging throughout Broward County, with the Broward Sheriff's Office blaming more than 100 different groups for a rash of crimes ranging from homicide to drug possession. The gangs include nationally affiliated offshoots, as well as more informal neighborhood groups.
"The public should be aware that there is a problem," said Carl Shechter, vice mayor of Pembroke Pines, home to 22 known gangs.
Countywide, law enforcement agencies hope to curb gang violence by teaching residents how to protect themselves, meeting with teachers to stem gangs at schools and monitoring social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, which are popular recruiting tools.
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. The task force is 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 members, statistics show.
In 2008, the Broward Sheriff's Office made 385 gang-related arrests, compared with 373 in 2007 and 153 in 2006. The figures do not include gang-related arrests in Pembroke Pines or other cities with their own police departments.
While police say some suspects arrested claim to be associated with a gang, others are merely boasting. In Hollywood, for example, police are investigating whether last month's brawl that led to 25 arrests at South Broward High School involved gang members or rival neighborhood groups.
In Pompano Beach and Deerfield Beach, six people have been killed since 2004 in a rivalry between Haitian and American black gangs, said Sgt. Dan Fitzpatrick, who leads the Broward Sheriff's Gang Task Force.
While those gangs battle over turf divided by Southwest 10th Street, other gangs attack at random in several cities. In the fall, a group of gunmen dubbed the "Dunkin' Donuts robbers" went on a two-county crime spree that left two people dead and five others wounded. The suspects told investigators they were gang members, according to the Broward Sheriff's Office.
Police say that to protect the public, they are conducting countywide sweeps and arresting suspected gang members involved in even minor crimes. Such arrests, police say, allow them to gather information about other gang members, which deters more serious crime.
"Are we seeing more kids naming themselves as gang members? Yes," said Coral Springs Police Sgt. Brad Mock, who leads the city's seven-member Tactical and Gang Unit. Coral Springs this year started sending officers to speak with teachers about gangs in schools, helping them to recognize gang members and report any criminal activity to the authorities.
"Teachers play a big role in keeping our schools safer," Mock said.
Why gang activity is on the rise is unclear.
"That's the $24,000 question," Pembroke Pines Police Chief Dan Giustino said. "You might say an increase in robberies and burglaries has something to do with economic times, but I honestly can't say that's playing into this gang-related activity."
Marguerite Bryan, associate criminology professor at Nova Southeastern University, cites "job losses, the lack of opportunities and access to firearms" as possible factors.
What is clear is that gangs are gaining a greater foothold.
"We've seen more organized gangs come together more recently," Fitzpatrick said. "The pure violence now involved is so much greater. Now when there is a problem between two gangs, rather than starting off with fists, they start off with shooting."
In Pembroke Pines, police last fall set up a gang task force and also joined the newly formed South Broward Gang Strike Force, which assigned nine undercover detectives from Miramar, the Broward Sheriff's Office and the FBI to infiltrate gangs and work with informants.
It is too early to tell whether it has had any measurable effect, Fitzpatrick said.
Based on information from informants and social networking Web sites, Pembroke Pines police identified 22 gangs in the city.
The department defines a gang as three or more people involved in a criminal enterprise, who wear identifying tattoos, colors or who flash hand signs.
In seven community meetings since November, Pembroke Pines police have told residents to look out for gang gestures and bandannas of all colors, including red for Bloods and blue for Crips.
"I wish gangs weren't here, but they're a reality now," said Ray Whittier, 62, president of the Emerald Springs Homeowners' Association, a gated community of 108 homes in Pembroke Pines.
He said he learned of the gang problem at a recent city meeting.
"I feel a little bit more safe in a gated community, plus I carry a gun," he said.
Staff Writer Jerome Burdi contributed to this report.
Jennifer Gollan can be reached at jgollan@SunSentinel.com or 954-385-7920.
Gang-related arrests by the Broward Sheriff's Office:
2008 >> 385
2007 >> 373
2006 >> 153
Figures do not include gang-related arrests in cities with their own police departments
South Florida's most prevalent gangsLatin Kings
Their motto is "Once a King,
always a King"
Possess an "all for one" mentality
Main focus is to control drug
trafficking and internal gang
Originated in southern California
Rival the Crips
Wear red bandannas or ragsCrips
Originated in Los Angeles in the late 1960s
Wear blue bandannas and ragsBlack Gangster Disciples
Often wear Oakland Raiders clothing
Frequently carry white, light gray or black bandannas
Wear tattoos that include a
devil's tail and a pitchfork
Sources: Florida Department of Corrections; Florida Gang Investigators Association
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 on them
Tattoos of gang names or symbolsBehavior
What 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
Who to call about suspected gang activity
Broward Crime Stoppers, anonymously, at 954-493-8477
Source: Pembroke Pines Police Department
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