Montgomery County and the Washington, DC metropolitan area are urban, densely populated, and diverse. In our county, we have about a million people, including a number of new immigrants with higher poverty rates. Unfortunately, this can lead to higher gang rates, but our county has responded with a number of strategies to address the problem of gangs.
Our county has two types of gangs: one is neighborhood-based and one is based on country of origin, such as MS-13 or the Latin Kings. Within the last three years, we attribute about 50 percent of gang related crime to MS-13, but as of five years ago, most gang crime was neighborhood-based, such as ‘hit squad.’ Other chiefs in the country have higher rates of murder and violence, both in general and from gang crime, but in the last few years we’ve seen the percentage of gang-related murders going up significantly. Five years ago, we had approximately 25 murders, with one or two directly attributed to gangs, but in 2017 we had six murders out of 25 attributed to local gangs. And we only attribute the violence if it is directly related to the gang—so, if a gang member commits a crime that isn’t ordered or directly by the gang, we attribute that to general statistics. For example, a gang member may rob a convenience store to get food for his family—that isn’t consider a gang crime.
The gang crime in our county is concentrated in certain areas and isn’t a problem throughout the whole county, so one strategy is to deploy local gang units. We have five local gang units and deploy small teams to collect intel information on gang activity. The gang units also work with other detectives and officers—for example, working with the robbery detectives on gang-related theft.
Montgomery County also has a centralized gang section that works on longer-term conspiracy and criminal enterprise cases, such as RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act] cases. We have the dual strategy of local officers working within the community, and their work feeding into the gang section that works to dismantle gangs by arresting and charging the leadership. In coordination with our federal partners in the U.S. Attorney’s office, gang leaders can be sentenced under federal guidelines for crimes such as extortion and organized crime funded by prostitution rings.
Information Sharing is a Strength
In addition to our coordination with U.S attorneys, all agencies in the Washington, DC region share information with other jurisdictions. We know that gang members don’t keep track of city and county borders, so law enforcement in the area doesn’t either. We contribute and use information through the [WRTAC] regional database, and everyone in the metropolitan area cooperates with each other because we recognize that information sharing is a strength for law enforcement crime prevention.
The Washington Regional Threat Analysis Center
The Washington Regional Threat Analysis Center (WRTAC) is designated as the District of Columbia’s fusion center and is recognized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The WRTAC analyzes intelligence information and coordinates information exchange between federal, state, local and private sector entities to help detect, prevent, and respond to all hazards and threats to public safety. The WRTAC also analyzes suspicious activity reports from the public as well as from federal, state, local, and private sector partners.
Prevention is the Key
The average gang member, whether MS-13, the Latin Kings, or a neighborhood gang, is a young person looking for a sense of belonging. Most gang arrests are of youth aged 13 to 15 or 16 for minor offenses, such as stolen cell phones or minor drug offenses. Some gang members are involved in stealing cars or violent offenses like sexual assault. But we find that older gang members are those in the late teens or early twenties because by their mid-twenties, gang members are either in prison, deported, or dead from violence.
We are not going to arrest our way out of the problem, but instead solve it by reducing gang activity and intervening before young people become gang members. Our department has a number of strategies to work with youth and provide better options than a gang lifestyle. For example, we have the Street Outreach Network (SON)—former gang members hired by the county to work with law enforcement and youth to intervene and rescue kids from gangs. Even though a street may be safe for adults, an unaccompanied minor walking home from school is an easy target for a gang members who accost the kids every day. The SON program helps children respond and provides support in situations where they may be vulnerable.
However, we need to invest in more programs that will reduce gang activity and provide positive outlets for teens. We have school resource officers (SRO) in every high school and those officers provide support and services for students. In addition, the SROs know who is vulnerable and can keep an eye on those students. The SROs also work with gang detectives and provide information on gang activity in and around the schools. But ideally, we would like more boots on the ground, and that includes having an SRO in every middle school, where many children and young teens struggle with problems that include gang pressure. Beyond SROs, we need more resources and interventions to help teens stay in school and become part of a productive group.
Chief J. Thomas Manger
Montgomery County Police Department
Chief J. Thomas Manger heads the police department of Montgomery County, Maryland, a diverse county of over one million people located in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.