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Police intervene as street gangs target youth

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By April Wright, Reporter

When Galax Police Chief Rick Clark took his position eight years ago, he never imagined he would be holding a town hall meeting resulting from an outbreak of street gangs.

But after street gang evidence, such as graffiti tagging, arose nearly four years ago on Grant and Givens streets, gang activity has escalated to the point of making it into the school system, a concerned Clark told listeners at a special gang symposium Thursday.

Then, members begun to readily admit that they were a part of a gang.

Although the community remains relatively safe, “it is a problem, even if it were two gang members, because two makes four and four makes eight,” said Clark.

Over the past year, the Galax Police Department has been taking a proactive approach to aggressively address the problem by implementing school programs, training officers to become gang specialists and providing in-service programs to school staff. The city and the school system have backed and encouraged the police department to become more aggressive on the issue.

“When I approached the city manager on the issue, he said ‘I don't care what it costs, just do what has to be done,’” said Clark.

At last Thursday's meeting, Clark; gang specialist and Galax Detective Aaron Criner; and Vickie Taylor, Galax school resource officer; asked the community to band together with the department on the issue.

“You are the eyes and ears of the police department,” said Criner.

The department assured it would follow up on any anonymous phone calls. And graffiti, Sgt. Chris Brown said, needs to be removed as quickly as possible because that is a gang's way of marking their territory. Brown and Criner have actually scrubbed walls to remove spray-painted gang markings, Clark said.

“We share the same problems as Roanoke, Richmond and Arlington, but we're small,” said Clark. “We still have rapes and break-ins.”

More than a year ago, Clark sent Criner to Harrisonburg, where the demographic makeup and population — excluding James Madison University — are nearly the same as Galax, to train with a Harrisonburg deputy and undergo a five-day training to become certified as a gang specialist.

“I take responsibility, but we're seeing things that should have caused red lights for us earlier,” said Clark.

Capt. James Cox, Brown and Criner began to work on the issue.

And shortly after the start of this year, 23-year-old Travis Carlray Goad of Galax was arrested for recruiting for the Bloods street gang near the campus of Galax Middle School. He faces 20 counts of gang recruitment and gang participation.

His accomplice, a 13-year-old GMS student, faces nine counts of gang recruitment after initiating nine other students through a violent “beat in.”

Both of these cases are still going through the courts, but Clark said Grayson Commonwealth's Attorney Doug Vaught has been aggressively prosecuting them.

Gang members have begun to target middle school students because they are at a vulnerable age, when teens are looking for something to belong to and typically don't realize the significance of gangs.

Gangs are also appealing to small children, as well. At Twin County Cinema, Clark noted, a young child gestured to him with the hand symbol for the Crips street gang.

“We've got to step up and give students some of the skills they lack,” said Clark.

Criner said some teens join a gang because the bond among members can fill a void in their lives. But adolescents are more likely to stray from gang activity if they are heavily involved with their families or channeled in a productive way.

Recently, the police department sent Taylor to Pennsylvania for a gang resistance education program. For 13 weeks beginning Nov. 5, Taylor will implement that information at GMS and teach sixth graders about gang resistance and respect.

“If we can reach them at an early age, I feel like we can really help them,” Taylor said previously at a school board meeting.

Taylor said this group of sixth-grade students also would take a refresher course when they reach the eighth grade, in hopes that they will carry this information beyond high school.

To increase the department’s gang intelligence, four additional officers — Jody Poole, Shawny Jones, Kevin Hall and Mark Burnett, one from each shift — will attend a five-day Virginia Gang Investigators Association training program in October to become gang specialists.

As a gang specialist, Criner has learned to better understand and pick out street gang tattoos, graffiti and uniform clothing. The department has created a database, containing gang members with these types of markings.

“It's not just one identification mark though, it's the big picture,” said Criner. “They're not all wearing baggy pants.”

Criner also conducts field interviews and researches photos on the Internet networking sites MySpace and Facebook.

It's surprising how many young people readily admit their pride of being involved in a gang.

It's not illegal to be a member of a gang, said Criner, but violence, drug activity and vandalism are typically some illegal acts gang members commit.

In fact, most gang members are initiated through violent or sexual acts, and some are recruited based on lineage — if their mother of father was a member, for example.

Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell sought out funding and solicited instructors to provide an in-service training at Galax City Schools, at the Galax Police Department, Galax Department of Social Services and Galax Recreation Center. In August, staff will be taught how to identify gang members by tattoos, symbols, clothing and other markings.

“I intend to make Galax City Schools a safe place for children to go to school. I intend for nice ladies to walk up and down the streets at night without fear,” said Clark.