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Monday, 18 January 2010

Da Fam is just one of approximately 200 gangs currently operating in DeKalb

08:17 |

“I’ve had gang members from rich families, grew up in a $400,000 home and both parents were at home,” he says, noting that many parents are shocked to learn that their children are heavily involved with criminal gangs. “It comes down to parents being parents … and that’s not just with gangs. It can be with any dangerous behavior.”

It was around 10 o’clock on a Sunday night when shots rang out from somewhere beyond the garage of the Lithonia home. Bullets and shotgun shells rained into the two-story house on Browns Mill Ferry Road. There was shouting, confusion, and then it was over. No one was harmed, but investigators quickly determined that a local gang was responsible for the mayhem. Five teenagers would eventually be arrested on aggravated assault, criminal damage to property and gun charges. The next day, the nearby Supreme Fish Delight and American Deli restaurants were robbed at gunpoint. The perpetrators were two of the same teenagers arrested for the Browns Mill home shooting, along with two other accomplices.Two months later, on nearby Shellbark Road, a pedestrian was beaten by a gang of five young males, who pummeled him to the ground with their fists and an assault rifle. DeKalb County prosecutors now believe these crimes, as well as a number of other incidents dating back to 2006, are the work of a violent street gang known as Da Fam. Over the past year, amid calls for better policing by Atlanta mayoral candidates, high profile murders, and the roundup of members of a Mechanicsville-based street gang called 30 Deep—believed to be involved in the murder of Grant Park bartender John Henderson—Atlantans have become much more familiar with the concept of gang crime, despite a confusing insistence by some leaders that the city is safer than ever. One thing, however, is clear to all sides of the crime discussion: Atlanta’s gangs are very real, very dangerous and not bound by city limits or the Perimeter. For years, Atlanta’s suburban neighbors have struggled to deal with young people practicing violent habits with no respect for the law. Sgt. Danny Jordan, a supervisor with the DeKalb County Police Department's 13-member gang unit, says Da Fam is just one of approximately 200 gangs currently operating in DeKalb . The number includes sets as small as three people operating independently or under the banner of larger street gangs. Jordan says cooperation between metro law enforcement agencies is integral to prosecuting gangs that operate across jurisdictional lines. “We share a lot of information through intelligence bulletins that we send out over e-mail, routinely updating each other on trends,” he says.
Jordan’s unit chalked up some success last month, when DeKalb County issued a 95-count indictment of 14 gang members (pictured with this article), all in their late teens to early 20s. The young males are accused of crimes committed between 2006 and 2009, most of which occurred east of the Perimeter between I-20 and Stone Mountain Freeway. According to the DeKalb County District Attorney’s office, each of the accused has ties to alleged gang Da Fam, an association that binds them together under charges of violating Georgia’s Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act. If they are convicted, the gang law could tack on additional prison time and a fine of as much as $15,000 apiece.Investigator Jose Diaz, with the Gwinnett County District Attorney’s Office, is the Northern Region Vice President of the Georgia Gang Investigators Association (GGIA). He says the Gang Act under which DeKalb has indicted the alleged Da Fam members has become an invaluable tool for law enforcement in Georgia and represents a necessary change to the legislation prosecutors had to rely on before 2006. He says older Georgia laws aimed at street gangs were almost all modeled after legislation intended to break down La Cosa Nostra-like organizations with well-defined hierarchical structures and what could be described as effective criminal business models. Under the old rules, Diaz says, the prosecution would have to prove that any crime attributed to a gang was perpetrated with the specific intent of furthering the goals of the criminal enterprise.

“They’d pretty much have to confess that ‘Yeah, I was doing this armed robbery to get money for our gang to buy guns,’ or to buy cars or to buy houses,” he says.
The Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act makes it easier for prosecutors to establish a criminal link between members of gangs and to present their various criminal acts together in court. Although the act was unanimously upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court last year, it is not without its critics. DeKalb County Assistant Public Defender Corinne Mull calls the law “extremely vague.”Mull represented a minor charged with murder, aggravated assault and gang violations stemming from his alleged ties to the national 18th Street Gang. She helped take his case to the Georgia Supreme Court, arguing that the Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act is unconstitutional.
“It could, and still does, permit any grouping of people to be treated as a gang, and leaves it at the discretion of the prosecutor,” says Mull. In addition to being too vague, Mull sees the Gang Act as a public relations tool for Georgia law enforcement, giving citizens a sense that the government is doing something about the state’s gang problem, without generating any real effect. “We frighten people enough, we’ve generated more money, more people are getting paid,” she says. “The DA’s office gets more money, prisons get more money. Bottom line, those people are still going to jail, they’re going to jail for the same amount of time. Nothing new is happening. “In reality,” she continues, “it’s meaningless.”Meanwhile, Mull says adding additional time for criminals who could be locked up indefinitely without the help of a gang charge is another fruitless practice encouraged by the gang act.
“They’re sort of punishing people in the grave,” she says. “[A gang could] go out and armed rob a night club. You can give them a life sentence for that and keep them there for life. What else is going to be achieved by saying ‘They’re a gang?’ Life plus 15?”

Mike Carlson, chief assistant district attorney for the DeKalb DA’s office, sees the Gang Act as anything but frivolous. Carlson has become well known in Georgia’s law enforcement community as the founding head of the DeKalb DA’s Gang Unit, established in 2007. He appeared on the History Channel program “Gangland” to discuss the activities of national gang SUR 13 in DeKalb County. His gang prosecution unit was presented with the 2009 President’s Award by the Georgia Gang Investigators Association for its success in prosecuting gang-related crime as well as for Carlson’s role in defending the Gang Act before the Georgia Supreme Court.

The Gang Act, he says, allows prosecutors to present a jury with a broad pattern of criminal behavior displayed through the defendant’s ties to a criminal enterprise such as a youth street gang.

“Without [the Gang Act],” Carlson says, “that additional evidence as to the context might not be admissible.”

Carlson adds in an e-mail follow-up, “By taking advantage of the flexibility afforded by the Gang Act, the DeKalb County District Attorney's Office has had considerable success in fighting criminal street gangs and for all intents and purposes shutting down Black Mobb.”

Black Mobb, an Eastside rival of Da Fam, saw the imprisonment this year of Darrel “Squirt” Curney, the 21-year-old whom the DeKalb DA’s office believes to be the gang’s leader. Curney pleaded guilty to nine counts of participation in criminal street gang activity and was sentenced to 15 years in prison and another 15 on probation.The Gang Act says “the State of Georgia is in a state of crisis which has been caused by violent street gangs whose members threaten, terrorize, and commit a multitude of crimes against the peaceful citizens of their neighborhoods.”
Georgia is not alone. The National Gang Threat Summary, released in 2009 by the National Gang Intelligence Center (NGIC), states that “Approximately 1 million gang members belonging to more than 20,000 gangs were criminally active within all 50 states and the District of Columbia as of September 2008.”The assessment goes on to note that between 2004 and 2008, areas that were previously unaffected by criminal street gangs have increasingly played host to gang activity as gangs have migrated into suburban and rural communities. The NGIC estimates that nearly 10,000 gangs with more than 172,000 members are currently operating in the Southeast, and predicts the region will see an increase in influence of traditional national Hispanic gangs in the near future. National gangs like SUR 13 and MS 13 have already established a presence in metro Atlanta.
Investigator Diaz, fresh from the GGIA’s monthly gang intelligence meeting, says although warnings of an increased presence of national gangs in Atlanta are troubling, the loosely organized hybrid gangs permeating Atlanta itself already pose unique difficulties to law enforcement.

“The boundaries of turf are not as defined as in other areas,” says Diaz. “It’s a good thing and a bad thing.”

It’s good because individual gangs, for the most part, have not been able to establish themselves as an indelible part of most local communities. However, it can be problematic for investigators when they’re looking for members of a specific gang.
“If I want to talk to them, it would be much easier [to have them within specific boundaries],” says Diaz, “because I’d already know where most of them hang out and where they live.” Metro Atlanta’s rising position as an East Coast drug hub has only helped fuel local gangs’ propensity for committing criminal acts. Members of local gangs, says Diaz, are perfectly suited to enter the ground-level drug trade as transporters and distributors once a large supply of illicit drugs becomes readily available.
“Gangs already have some type of organization,” he says. “It’s a group of kids that are not really scared of going out and committing crimes, they’re not scared to use violence. A lot of them are under the age of 17.”Diaz stresses that arrests alone won’t solve the region’s gang problem. Without strong efforts within the community to educate citizens and deter youth from going astray, the best law enforcement can hope to do is temporarily disrupt the activities of criminal street gangs. He uses 2000 to 2001 as an example. During that period, roughly 50 Georgia members of La Famila, many of them high ranking and influential, were federally indicted. “It created a void for a while, but unfortunately a lot of these groups see that [power vacuum] as an opportunity rather than a deterrent.” Diaz is quick to note that more than any economic or environmental issues, strong parental supervision is the biggest factor in keeping Georgia’s youth out of trouble.

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