Every seat was taken last Thursday, as a special Mason District Town Hall kicked off for a robust discussion about gangs and gang activity in our community. Speakers from the county’s gang unit began by defining just what a gang is – three or more individuals who gather for a common cause and criminal activity. Captain Paul Cleveland noted that the defining phrase is “criminal activity.” Capt. Cleveland also reported that 35 gangs of various sizes may be active in the region at any time, including six that are national or international. Reporting of gang activity has increased, he said, attributable to greater awareness about gangs in the community. That greater awareness includes being vigilant in one’s neighborhood, reporting unfamiliar vehicles, people, and activities to the county’s non-emergency number, 703-691-2131. Graffiti should be reported to the police, recorded, and removed quickly.
The county’s gang unit is ably assisted by members of the Northern Virginia Gang Task Force, established with federal funding earmarked by former Congressman Frank Wolf. Jay Lanham, director of the task force, noted that funding now has been picked up locally by some jurisdictions, but that the absence of continued federal funding has reduced the task force’s activities. One of the action items from the Town Hall asks community members to contact their Members of Congress, including Senators Kaine and Warner, and advocate for renewed funding. If similar efforts were made with the Maryland delegation, a more robust regional effort would be beneficial, since gang members tend to travel between and among jurisdictions.
Panelists from schools, courts, and social service agencies noted that education and prevention are paramount in combating gang activity. Reinforcement of student rights and responsibilities, and understanding the influence of friends vs. parents, are important gang activity deterrents. After-school programs are beneficial, and many exist, but their capacity is limited by the amount of funding available. For instance, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington operates an after-school program, serving 80 youth in Culmore. With additional private resources, the club could hire more counselors and serve more students.
Numerous questions from attendees were addressed in the 90 minute Q & A portion of the Town Hall. Most focused on prevention and intervention programs. Engaging at-risk families very early, at the toddler stage, is important, one child development advocate said. Capacity and accessibility of programs, and strengthening initiatives between police and community, were suggested, and improvement in mental health services available for youth also was recommended. One SACC (school aged child care) teacher asked for training of SACC teachers, similar to what classroom teachers already receive, and was connected immediately with the right folks.
Making our wild natural places in parks attractive for recreation, while making them unattractive for nefarious activity, will be the focus of a staff-level meeting I will host with the police and the Park Authority in coming weeks. We live in one of the safest counties in the nation, but gang activity is unacceptable everywhere. Prevention and intervention must be vigorous and community-wide; interdiction and suppression must be equally robust, using every legal tool available.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]