BY LINDSAY MYERS — Detective Scott Ratty of the Hyattsville City Police Department (CPD) and Detective George Norris of the Prince George’s County Police Department (PGPD) presented on gang activity in Hyattsville at the Police and Public Safety Committee meeting Aug. 3. The presentation, primarily led by Detective Norris, explored the many reasons why young people join gangs, as well as preventative measures the city might take to mitigate future growth.
Detective Norris defined a gang as “a group that is individually or collectively engaged in antisocial, unlawful criminal activity to further [its own] economic or social status.” Gang activity runs the full gamut of criminality, from graffiti to human trafficking. In 2009, the Justice Department’s National Gang Intelligence Center estimated that gangs are responsible for nearly 80 percent of crimes nationwide.
Prince George’s County is home to some 300 gangs, ranging in size from three members to several hundred. Detective Norris called the county, “the east coast hub for MS-13,” although he said most of the activity happens outside of Hyattsville in bordering cities like Mt. Rainier, Brentwood, and Langley Park.
Detective Norris has been working on the county’s Gang Task Force since its creation in 2002. He said that his experience has taught him that good parenting is the key to keeping kids out of gangs, not necessarily extra-curricular programming.
“One of the problems is, that people want an easy answer. [They say,] ‘We want a program for intervention/prevention.’ Something like an extracurricular sports club. But when you ask 100 kids why they joined gangs, you’ll get fifty, sixty, seventy different answers. … They may have been raised to be a gang member, they may do it out of fear, or for love, or attention, or discipline, or money. You have to figure out what drove that kid to join a gang before you intervene. There’s no one program that will cover it,” he said.
Area schools have attempted to reduce gang membership through programs like G.R.E.A.T. (Gang Resistance Education and Training), which offer officer-instructed classroom curriculum on gang prevention, but such programs are costly and “have been proven to have almost zero effect,” said Detective Norris. Rather, he said, the best intervention programs start at home.
“There’s a common saying that a lot of people refer to: ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ I understand the premise behind it, but I disagree with it,” said Detective Norris. “It takes parenting to raise a child, and I don’t mean two parents, or one parent, or both parents. It can be foster parents, or an aunt, a grandparent, or a mentor. There needs to be some kind of adult supervision in the home life of that child to teach the child right or wrong. Because what we have is a lot of kids at 13 or 14 years old and someone tries to instill some discipline in them and — best case scenario — they have no discipline. It’s almost impossible for the village to raise that child when there is nothing to support at home what that village is trying to raise.”
Detective Norris also said that`school officials need to be more honest with themselves about the extent of the gang problem in the county. “In the school system gang is a 4 letter word. … I have principals that say we don’t have gangs, we just have some gang graffiti. We have a presence, but not a problem. That’s like saying, ‘I have rat droppings in my house, but I don’t have rats,’” he said.
Parents and educators should immediately report suspected signs of gang activity, like graffiti and suspicious social media pages. Social media in particular has changed the way gangs operate. Adolescents tend to be more social media savvy, allowing young gang members to stay one step ahead of their parents and law enforcement. Social media also allows young gang members to connect with more experienced gang members outside of their neighborhoods.
“Social media has been a force multiplier, it allows gangs to communicate. Members can get to know people they might never have met before,” said Detective Norris.
With large international gangs like MS-13, the scope of this communication is especially dangerous. “We have gangs in Central America sending pictures and videos to MS-13 members up and down the East Coast in real time,” said Detective Norris.
The Police and Public Safety Committee will use September’s meeting to reflect on the detectives’ presentation and brainstorm solutions to the city’s gang issues. They will consider recommending parenting classes and other interventionist programs through the city’s Community Services and Recreation department.
Detective Norris left the committee with this final thought: “Law Enforcement can’t solve the problem alone. We can go arrest people every single day, but all we are doing is cutting the tops off dandelions in the lawn. They’re going to spread and they’re going to come back. … A lot of times people ask me to come to schools and talk to the kids about gangs, but I’d rather talk to the teachers. Talk to the parents. Like that saying, ‘Talk to your kids about gangs before we have to,’” he said.
The Police and Public Safety Committee meets the first Wednesday of the month at 7:30 p.m. See the city’s website for location.