Gangs of Gwinnett: Crackdown reaps statistical dividends

After hours at the Gwinnett County Police Department's Central Precinct is a lot like a football locker room. There is the pep talk, the review of pertinent information, the stoking of courage. And most importantly, there's the motivated team of bruisers hell-bent on pulverizing an opponent.

The team, in this case, is the recently beefed-up gang task force, a roughly 30-member unit that's grown from five officers in 1998 to among the department's largest special units. The opponent, of course, is the 90 or so gangs the task force tracks, seven days a week, as they operate in Gwinnett. The team's objective is not to merely query the gangs, cite them or shoo them away.

They are out to "crush" them.

The task force, relaunched in March at no extra cost to taxpayers, is comprised of go-getters from other divisions, the proactive officers who wrote solid reports and aren't bashful about working nights and weekends.

Roughly half have SWAT team experience. None shy from the vampire shift. Their presence has so far paid off.

"When you throw a 30-man unit at something," said task force member Sgt. D. Cavender, "you're going to get results."

Since March, the unit has made more than 750 arrests of area gang members - roughly 25 per week - and written 1,700 citations. They've seized dozens of weapons, including high-powered AK-47s, large quantities of marijuana, cocaine and caches of bulletproof vests lifted from police vehicles. They tallied 185 arrests in July alone, or six per day. That's roughly 16 percent of the known gangster population in Gwinnett - 1,100 residents - arrested in a single month.

(Similar statistics weren't tracked as closely before the reformation of the task force, which makes an accurate comparison between 2008 and recent years impossible, leaders say).

Several high-profile busts have resulted. Among the unit's more successful initiatives was a multi-agency, countywide sweep in June called "Operation Community Shield" that netted 35 gang members, each of them illegal immigrants who were arrested and deported.

Or, you might say, crushed.

The task force also assumes high-level crime cases linked to gangs - the drive-bys and stabbings, for instance - that were pushed off exclusively to homicide detectives before. That buys time on both ends.

"Unlike the uniform patrol, we have the time to investigate," Cavender said. "We don't have the next call waiting for us. It's what we decide to do."

Connie Wiggins, executive director of Gwinnett Clean and Beautiful, called the task force the most formidable opponent to local gangs she's seen in 23 years with her agency.

"We truly believe the work (they're) doing is making a big difference," said Wiggins, the county's prominent authority on graffiti.

Night missions

The bread and butter of the task force's success is a knowledgeable concentration of force.

Each evening around 6, task force members - mostly fit, voraciously motivated and relatively young men - congregate in a corporate-looking boardroom in a precinct near Gwinnett Place Mall. Here they hunker down for an all-night run on the streets. They sit at long green tables. They take roll call. All police reports from previous days marked as gang-related are distributed like poker cards among the officers. They formulate a game plan, what the nightly mission will be, mapping out their own movements, analyzing trends. After a briefing, the squads are dispersed, these iron boots meant for crushing.

"It's going back to the old style of police work," said Lt. J.T. Strickland, a task force leader. "It could be graffiti, burglary, a drive-by shooting. We want to be a show of force."

Department policy forbids media ride-alongs, but officers maintain their most valuable tactic in the field is usually a simple "knock-and-talk," a method of interfacing with gang members to keep information current.

"In most cases, we already know the subject," said Officer J. Summers, a stocky task force member with a shaved head and a mental encyclopedia of Gwinnett factions. "We talk to them, see if they're wearing colors, have any new tattoos."

Frequently on the task force's radar are hotspots like Singleton and Dickens roads in west-central Gwinnett, Jimmy Carter Boulevard to the west and Bethany Church and Annistown roads farther south. But gangs have been tracked to every community in Gwinnett, even places like the tony Hamilton Mill development in Dacula, leaders say.

"Most people are surprised - they're like, 'Grayson?'" Officer K. "Nelli" Berardinelli said. "It happens everywhere."

The unit's value doesn't end at the county line. Intelligence handed up by the local members is "obviously invaluable" in wide-reaching federal initiatives, said Kim Dammers, Assistant U.S. Attorney.

"The local law enforcement has the handle on the crimes that are being committed and the gangs committing them," she said.

Elusive targets

So who exactly is the task force hunting?

That's tough to answer, said Summers, as no all-encompassing face can be pinned on the latter day Gwinnett gangster.

Active Gwinnett gangs can be a cross-pollination of black, white and Latino associates, sometimes with female members. (Girls, less likely to be patted down by police, are allowed in gangs to transport drugs and weapons). Police say the median gangster age in Gwinnett is 16 or 17, younger than the Hollywood stereotype but old enough to drive. Mostly they're drug users or small-time pushers, rarely the kingpins overseeing transactions. Aside from Mexico, they're transplants from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, among other South American and Asian nations. Their escapades are funded through minor drug deals, burglaries and especially auto thefts.

In order to achieve gangster status, nearly all gangs subject recruits to violent rites of passage known as "beat-ins," wherein three to six associates punch and kick them without pause for 30 seconds or more.

And then there's the nicknames. Ironically, Gwinnett gangsters have traditionally had a predilection for naming themselves after the industrious Seven Dwarfs - "Dopey," "Sneezy" and "Droopy" have all been arrested - or adopting other cartoonish monikers like "Mongo" and "Chuckles."

The vernacular varies sect to sect, but the gang hierarchy in Gwinnett is usually similar in structure.

Recruits who are "beat in" gain "pee wee" status, implying they're foot soldiers and errand runners. Graduated "pee wees" are bumped to "assassin" status, and after that they're tagged with military insignia, such as "lieutenant," "captain," "sergeant" and "squad leader."

The top of the food chain is reserved for an "OG," or an "original gangster," the seasoned upper management of each faction.

"They sometimes go on point systems," Summers said. "Whatever missions and crimes you do, you'll get certain points. It escalates from there."

Gang signs - hand gestures made to signal one's allegiance - are still en vogue, and often end up in tattoos, police say. Area gangs embrace a rainbow of telltale colors, no longer relegated to the famous blues and reds of Los Angeles gangland. Most Gwinnett sects are "hybrid gangs" that borrow characteristics from more prominent, national syndicates discovered through music or peer interaction.

The menacing nature of gangsters aside, police say the Gwinnett breed isn't typically dangerous to the public at large.

"We're not seeing them go in on home invasions of people they've never met," Cavender said. "We're seeing them shoot at rival gangs and rob them."

Task force members cite the Georgia Street Gang Prevention Act as a useful tool in thwarting gangs.

The law, enacted in 2006, made even menial crimes like criminal trespass a felony, if it's done in furtherance of a gang. It also did away with a requirement that forced prosecutors to establish a "pattern" of gang activity - meaning two or more crimes - before making a case against suspects.

On a municipal level, three Gwinnett cities - Lawrenceville, Norcross and Snellville, respectively - adopted anti-gang ordinances last year.

But local violence still abounds. Following the dismantling of the La Gran Familia syndicate several years ago, officials agree the most active and violent gang to infiltrate Gwinnett is MS-13 - which stands for "Mara Salvatrucha 13," or "El Salvadorian Gang." MS-13 members, who descend from myriad Latino backgrounds, often distinguish themselves by wearing jerseys emblazoned with the number 13.

The gang has been tied to murder here as recently as July. Police said a known MS-13 associate, Pascual Lopez, 17, shot and killed a 30-year-old man who was walking home to his Norcross-area apartment on July 22.

The motive was attempted robbery, and the victim had no gang allegiance, a detective later said.

The graffiti barometer

For a barometer on local gang activity, one needs look no further than the nearest Dumpster or train trellis.

Agencies tasked with keeping tabs on Gwinnett's graffiti - traditionally the unsightly, territorial markings of gangs - say patterns of gang "taggings" roll like waves from year to year, though a sheer drop is expected this year in light of the task force's reformation.

The dubious watermark for graffiti in Gwinnett came in 2004. That year, observers identified 455 sites and roughly 31,000 square feet of graffiti, much of it scribbled on private property, said Wiggins, head of Gwinnett Clean and Beautiful.

At its problematic height, there was enough graffiti tagged in Gwinnett to stretch for 12 miles; last year's markings would go about four miles.

"It's almost like there's a line," Wiggins said. "The public is responding quicker when they see graffiti, and practicing what the county has preached. That's driven the problem to common areas (such as utility boxes and street signs) where people don't feel a sense of ownership."

To that point, Wiggins noted a recent spike in residents reporting graffiti. In 2003, about 250 reports filtered in. More than four times that many have come already this year, she says.

Each February, a team of "observers" traverses every major roadway in the county, inspects every strip center and each residential area where graffiti has occurred, in order to formulate a square footage.

Wiggins said the task force's presence should make that job easier come next February.

"It's as statistically valid as you can be with stuff like this," Wiggins said. "When we do the survey in 2009, I think the stats will speak for themselves."

Part 3 of the "Gangs of Gwinnett" series, the final installment, examines the presence of gangs in local schools and the gangster psychology. It will appear in Wednesday's Daily Post.