Since 2007, Inweekly has reported on the rise of gangs in Escambia County. In 2008, Florida changed its gang statute-Florida Statute 874.03-to include the characteristics of hybrid gangs so that they could be prosecuted on a higher criminal level for crimes committed by group members. The Florida Attorney General’s office estimated roughly 15 gangs were present in Escambia County, four of which were recognized under the statute. Six years later, the gangs have grown and are recruiting younger members.
By Sean Boone, published April 2, 2009
The Area Gang Problem We Overlooked
From the days of mobster-style battles on the streets of Chicago and New York in the 1940s to the hip-hop glamorized crime in South-Central Los Angeles during the 1990s, gangs have impacted urban society for nearly a century.
Today, gangs exist in almost every city in the United States and can often be hard to recognize from a distance-particularly in a place like Escambia County, where Blue Angels and bushwhackers often drown out gunshots and drug trade.
Although Escambia is a far cry from quagmire, it is a county where its beach vendors are tagged with gang graffiti, 14-year-olds are shot in drive-bys and shotguns are sprayed at drug dealers on busy streets.
It’s also a county where once-safe neighborhood districts like Montclair, Wedgewood, Ensley and Brownsville have become dens for youth violence, mischief and gang activity-practically overnight.
While neighborhood street violence is hardly headline news for 2009, it is certainly a reminder that we as a community are not immune to a problem that is growing exponentially across the nation-and even more alarmingly in our state.
Right now Florida has roughly 65,000 gang members belonging to 1,500 gang associations, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
In 1991 there were less than 200 known gangs in the state-a 650 percent gang increase in less than 20 years.
State gangs vary from highly-organized national tags, to biker outlaws and neighborhood hoodlums.
Though they may appear different, they all share a single goal-to make money.
“It’s all about getting money,” says Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum. “In saying that, gangs have become the primary retailers of drugs in the state.
“They also have had a large hand in non-domestic violent crime and are increasingly prevalent in retail theft.”
Each year convicted gang members cost state taxpayers more than $132 million, according to an Attorney General report.
They are also increasingly changing their image.
“They are no longer just street gangs,” says McCollum. “They are living in small areas and gaining membership from younger and younger kids.”
Although the state has a presence of nationally known gangs such as the Crips, Sur 13, Bloods, MS-13 and the Latin Kings, a new gang threat has been developing for quite some time, especially in suburban and rural areas, in the form of loosely associated neighborhood groups known by law enforcement as “hybrids.”
Like organized gangs, these hybrid groups primarily sell narcotics, burglarize and commit other violent crimes-particularly among rival groups.
Many wear the same type of clothing, use specific hand gestures and “mark” territories with graffiti.
For comparison, the city of Tallahassee has 18 known gangs, 13 of which are state recognized.
But even though a group may appear to be an unorganized neighborhood crime group or not officially recognized by the state, they still may have ties with some of the big boys.
Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan says that in many cases, nationally affiliated gangs will send a representative to our area to recruit new members to create these hybrid gangs.
“While they are paying fealty to groups such as the Latin Kings, they don’t get to carry that designation,” he says. “There is that tie.
“If you are associated by these folks, then you are a part of that even if you never call yourself a name at all. That’s why they are revamping the laws on gang membership in Florida so when we prosecute them we can get the max sentences for them.”
From 2000-2008, the ECSO held no specific division to counter the rising gang problem.
Because of this, there are no statistics on gang activity during that time period, making the process of tackling the problem a tricky task for the current Sheriff’s administration.
“We are basically reestablishing the wheel here,” says ECSO Sgt. Jay Camac. “There has been no mechanism in the last eight years (to measure) all these gang-related crimes.
“Nobody has even looked at them to see if they were gang related crimes or not. Before the new administration, they were just crimes.”
In January, Camac became the Gang Intelligence Coordinator for the Sheriff’s Office and has been working under State Attorney McCollum’s newly implemented regional task force, which looks to bring both local and national law enforcement bodies and community groups together to gain information on gangs in Florida.
Camac previously worked as a gang specialist for the Sheriff’s Office from 1996-2000 under Sheriff Jim Lowman and helped arrest the last known Latin King representative in our area.
“The last administration (Sheriff Ron McNesby) was kind of nave to this,” he says. “We’re now going to be going out and obtaining intelligence and so forth with the new task force.”
But just how is a task force going to work?
According to McCollum, the task force breaks into seven regions and includes the help of local law enforcement, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, U.S. Marshals and youth/community groups such as the Boys and Girls Club.
“There will be five committees for the each region,” he says. “Those committees include prevention, education, law enforcement, business and prison reentry.
“We’re attacking not just through law enforcement, but also prevention on the front end and prisoner rehabilitation on the back end.”
While the committees will be led by local sheriffs and police chiefs (Santa Rosa Sheriff Wendell Hall for our region), McCollum says he hopes to see many educators get involved.
“We’ve asked the schools to participate in this,” he says. “I would hope 60 percent would be teachers and faculty for committees.”
While the business world is progressing quicker and quicker under the demands of the information age, the underground world of neighborhood crime is staying at par with the pace.
A 2005 report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice found that 45 percent of gang members were using technology in commission of crimes.
With technology advancing during the past decade, it has become easier for gang members to recruit, particularly on networking Web sites such as MySpace and Facebook.
Many neighborhood gangs in Escambia County can easily be found on these sites just by searching for a particular landmark or neighborhood. Gang members, some as young as 15, post messages to foes and pictures of friends who have been arrested or killed. Others pose with hundreds of dollars and hold up gang signs or even guns.
Morgan says the boldness of posting pictures and propaganda online correlates with the fact that many are not afraid to stand in public to make a drug deal, vandalize or steal something.
“These are crimes of opportunity,” he says. “They will stand out in the open to do a deal if they don’t think anyone is around.
“These guys set up watches. What really has surprised me is their mobility. While they may run the streets of Ensley, you will often find them in Perdido Key or Century (dealing drugs).”
Because naming local gangs often gives street credit, the IN has decided not to list any of the neighborhood names or sayings from their Web sites.
Gangs often recruit youth who are living in broken homes, poverty or have witnessed family and friends take part in gang activity.
Although the gang lifestyle is initially gratifying because it comes with big rewards, it also comes with a heavy risk-with the odds in favor of being arrested at least six times in a four-year period and a 25 percent chance of dying.
According to Steve Sharp, division chief for protection services and security operations for the Escambia County School District, there have been 15 shootings since September 2007 involving middle or high school students in our county.
While these shootings have happened outside of district schools, Sharp says he is concerned that youth violence in the community is increasing.
“Bad kids are a lot worse than they used to be,” he says. “Back in the day we had issues or fights that included such things as a baseball bat, a chain or a stick. Now kids are grabbing guns.
“It’s not that they are more accessible, but the guns just don’t phase them.”
Two years ago the ECSD implemented a gang reduction task force after football and other sporting events began seeing more and more gang-related violence.
“It wasn’t high school rivalry fights, it was fights involving various groups from gangs or neighborhoods,” he says. “We implemented several measures for the games such as increasing officers and dispatching the (ECSO) helicopter.”
With the consolidation of several schools in 2007, including the closure of Woodham High School, school resource officers were increased to two in all high schools except one.
“We really think it has made a difference by having that extra deputy,” says Sharp.
Resource deputies are trained to recognize suspicious behavior and patterns, including how groups of students dress.
“Several years ago kids were showing up with NASCAR jackets with STP on them,” says Sharp. “A resource officer finally asked a kid about it and found out it was really the symbol for a gang near Pensacola High School. Since then, they don’t allow kids to wear the symbol at that high school.”
The Sheriff’s Office has also been pushing its Student Crime Stoppers program to get kids to come forward with tips that could lead to arrests.
Students can go online to studentcrimestoppers.org and anonymously report an incident and possibly receive a reward if the report is valid.
“From theft, skipping school to narcotics in the neighborhood, we’ll take anything,” says SCS head Jeff Van Camp. “We offer the same program as the adults with the only difference in that the rewards are up to $500.
“It is very viable in my opinion since the students are ours eyes and ears. This is how we receive any information regarding a gang in our schools.”
Although law enforcement plays a key role in controlling the spread of gangs, those who work daily against the problem agree that the most important piece of prevention starts in the neighborhood.
“It’s going to take a lot of community involvement,” says Camac. “Obviously the first thing we need to do is deal with the violence from gangs that is going on, then after that we need to address why it is we have a gang problem, which is often a result of young men not having a role model or father figure.”
While some studies show that some communities deny any gang problem due to its negative publicity for business, a study from the National Gang Assessment Survey shows that 69 percent of law enforcement surveyed reported a positive feedback for gang prevention projects.
“We have to assess what we’re dealing with as a community,” says Sharp. “Until the business, youth-based and faith based community as a whole realizes that, we are going to have the same problems.”
One of the things the Tallahassee Police Department has created as a community educational tool is an interactive Web site on gangs that allows users to browse databases and ask deputies and ex-gang members questions.
The ECSO site is currently under construction, but Camac says he will be working to get something like this in place in the next year.
“We’re definitely going to rework the site,” he says. “But one thing I don’t want to start is a lot of hysteria.
“We’re just getting started with the (Attorney General) task force and it is going to have to grow. The main thing I see with this is that we are involving many different agencies and other entities in the community and I think that is going to be very beneficial.”
“Part of the prevention is to get together with all these groups and get them to develop programs with the school system that helps combat gangs.”