Reporter’s Note: In Saturday’s edition of the LaGrange Daily News, I introduced our readers to “Trevor.” Trevor is a well known gang member in our community who, under the condition of complete anonymity, shared his story of life inside a gang. In this second part of the series, I’ll have more on Trevor’s story, but focus on what local law enforcement agencies are doing to identify the gangs, handle the problems surrounding them, and most importantly, help bring some of these members to justice.
It’s Investigator Ray Ham’s job to know about gangs. Not just average facts, stats and figures, but hardcore intel on the groups that roam the streets of LaGrange and Troup County. From the Bloods and the Crips, to the Gangsta Disciples and Sur 13, Ham has identified at least six different gangs in the community, and knows most of their members.
He may not know gang members in person, but Ham is the primary gang investigator with the Special Investigations Unit of the LaGrange Police Department. Inside his computer sit hundreds of files – 225 to be exact – with the names, descriptions and detailed information of whom these gangs members are, who they’re affiliated with, the colors they wear, where they hang out and pictures.
The magnitude of intel reaches far and wide; these are people who are in gangs right here at home and across the West Georgia region. They may be members themselves, or just people who associate with known gang members.
“A gang is a group of three or more that are associated formally and commit crime activities under a common name, symbol, sign, graffiti, with distinguishing characteristics or customs,” explained Ham. “It’s not illegal to be in a gang … but it is when you commit crimes for them.”
The most identifiable gangs in LaGrange and Troup County include the Bloods, Crips, Gangsta Disciples and the Hispanic gang Sur 13. But under the official definition of a gang, Ham said it also includes groups like the KKK, Aryan Nation and some motorcycle clubs. According to Ham and Special Investigation Unit Sgt. Mark Cavender, they’re everywhere, although you may not notice it right away.
“You don’t see a lot of flags or colored bandanas because they know the patrol officers and the community recognizes it,” explained Ham.
Instead, gang members usually show their “pride” by using hand signs, symbols, or probably most popular, graffiti painted on the sides of homes, businesses, abandoned buildings or just about anywhere else.
Another place gang members are readily identified is inside the Troup County Jail.
“Five years ago if you asked me if there was a problem with gangs, I would’ve said no,” said Jail Administrator Marty Reeves. “But there is a gang problem in LaGrange. They’re becoming more organized. Assaults are paid for and planned. You have beat downs for initiations. You have a ring leader that kids look up to … there’s a hierarchy. That’s when we split them up and segregate them.”
“They [gang members] sign to each other … sometimes you catch them trying to pass messages along to each other,” said Detention Officer Christopher Lund.
New computer software helps Reeves identify which inmates are a part of a gang. Once in the system, the inmate’s name is flagged and a highlighted list pops up of rival gang members so jailers can keep them separated. Reeves said some of the jailers and deputies also attended a 40-hour class that taught them how to recognize gang activity inside the jail walls.
Information, like codes, drawings of gang symbols and more is then shared through a database that’s connected to gang task forces in Atlanta, plus the Department of Corrections and local police departments. Besides valuable intelligence, it alerts local law enforcement agencies when a gang member is being paroled or released on probation and may be headed back to the community.
It’s in the community that you may see or hear about gang-related crime.
“Historically, activity that is gang related involves drugs,” said LaGrange Police Chief Louis Dekmar.
“Gang activity is all about the money … cash flow,” explained Ham. “Property crimes, taking things like TVs, catching a car ‘slipping’ [unlocked] stealing change cups, iPads, computers.”
According to “Trevor,” members commit those crimes to up their status within the gang, and increase the gang’s status in the community.
“You’re showing your loyalty” to the gang, he explained. “They [members] go on missions to show that they want to be in the gang, they steal TVs or weed.”
Cavender said most, but not all, of property crimes, like entering autos and burglaries, are crimes of opportunity. Victims of property crimes committed by gangs are usually random and not affiliated with a gang.
However, Ham said when it comes to violent crime in LaGrange and Troup County, gangs tend to go after other gang members, not random people.
“There’s an honor code in these gangs,” said Ham. “Those people not in sects or cliques are not going to be brought into it. Bad publicity is bad for their business.”
“As it relates to violent crime [shootings, aggravated assaults, etc.], we don’t have gangs or sects intentionally target innocent members of the community,” explained Cavender. “It happens that those innocent bystanders get caught in the crossfire, like in Calumet Park.”
In June 2013, seven people were hurt when two or more rival gang members from the Bloods and the Crips started shooting at each other during an annual block party inside the park. Fortunately, no one was killed. As Cavender explained, the gang members were aiming at each other, but missing their targets, hitting other people instead.
So far there have been seven gang-related shootings in West Georgia in 2014; many of those due to reckless conduct, like spraying a home with bullets. In 2013, that number reached 30.
Even one shooting is too many, which is why a few years ago the community formed the Troup County Anti-Gang Committee. The group is comprised of officers from the LaGrange Police Department, West Point Police Department, Hogansville Police Department, the Troup County Sheriffs Office, the District Attorney’s Office, local prosecutors, city and county leaders and others.
They committee has a mission to put an end to gang-related violence. The group meets once a month to discuss gang activity, new areas of concern and strategies in prosecuting gang-related cases.
“We’re taking blinders off,” said Cavender. “Gangs are here.”
According to the District Attorney’s Office, since the inception of the Anti-Gang Committee, the D.A. has prosecuted and closed 17 gang related cases. It has 22 more still pending, and the D.A.’s office has put 49 gang members behind bars.
While the committee – and its caseload – continues to grow, many believe it has been a success, but more can be done. As Dekmar said, the police officers can’t do anything about broken homes, and can’t be parents to these gang members to steer them on the right path. However, the community can, just by being the eyes and ears in their own neighborhood.
“Don’t intervene, but report what you see,” he said. “If something looks out of place get a license plate number, time of day, color, signs symbols. Then we can put more of our resources into that area, instead of reacting to gang related crime.”
“If the number one reason these kids are joining gangs is because of identity and a place to belong, it’s not going to be an easy fix,” explained Ham. “It’s boots on the ground, community activism until we reach that generation. Be a mentor to your family members and neighbors. You got to start somewhere. Get the families [of gang members] involved.”
But even then, it’s not that simple for gang members. Trevor now has a children and wants out of “the life.”
“When they came, I just wanted to be with them … stay by their side. I wanted to do better for them. It made me look at life differently,” he said.
Sadly, Trevor is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He said leaving the gang is dangerous and could have serious consequences for him and his family.
“You’re bait,” he said. “You have no protection. It’s blood in, and blood out … they’ll fight you out. And they’ll say ‘There’s no coming back … you’re dead to us.’ They [gang members] will ask questions and no legitimate response is good enough. Even if I move to Atlanta, it’s going to be the same. I’ll be like prey … I’ll be vulnerable.”
“This ain’t the life,” he admitted. “I regret joining.”
It’s been said it takes a village to raise a child, in the same respect, it will also take a community to help these young adults find a better way of life, away from gangs and off the streets of LaGrange and Troup County.
Ham and the Special Investigations Unit with the LaGrange Police Department continuously conduct special presentations about Gangs in our community. Anyone interested in having them speak at an event or civic group, may call the LaGrange Police Department at 706-883-2603.