The gunfire that ripped through Washington, D.C., last week, killing four, has set off a renewed effort in the region to combat gang violence.

“We really have to be careful that we don’t let gangs get a foothold and they’re attempting to,” said Del. Gerron Levi (D-Dist. 23A).  “I think the recent events make it clear to everyone that we could always be on the brink.”

That brink has led to unprecedented measures around the region to combat gang violence.  In Maryland, there have been several pieces of legislation aimed at fighting gang violence.

Levi is the point person on a bill co-sponsored by 37 other delegates from across the state to close loopholes in the state’s Gang Prosecution Act.

“ a person has been found to have committed a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, what this statute is designed to do is punish or add time to their sentence for doing that crime to strengthen the gang,” she explained.

Levi said a person must meet all of a four-step criterion to be considered a gang member: he or she must be in a gang, know the gang is participating in criminal activity and must have committed a crime for the benefit of the gang.

The proposal has drawn some criticism, including concerns that it is overkill to sentence people twice for the same crime.

“We’re not going to solve this by locking people up,” said Kenneth Barnes, CEO of Reaching Out to Others Together (ROOT), a local anti-violence organization.  “We should understand that by now.”

In addition to that bill, several of Maryland’s representatives on Capitol Hill have thrown their weight around to get funding for Montgomery and Prince George’s counties to combat gang violence.

Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Dist. 8), Donna Edwards (D-Dist. 4), and Steny Hoyer (D-Dist. 5) secured $2.7 million in federal funding specifically geared toward fighting gang-related activity. 

“Gang violence must be addressed in a comprehensive way, both in the approaches we use and in coordination across jurisdictional lines,” said Hoyer in a press release. “This federal funding will provide a significant opportunity to enhance gang prevention and suppression initiatives in Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties, as well as bolster anti-gang efforts throughout the Washington Metropolitan Region.”

That funding is believed to be necessary now more than ever due to the recent spate of violence.

“The tragic events underscore and heighten the need for this kind of attention,” Van Hollen told the AFRO. “It was obviously a horrible tragedy and it highlights the need to focus resources on this problem.”

Prince George’s County Police Chief Roberto L. Hylton prefers to use the bulk of the funding on prevention, though.

“What we intend to do is use it, not in a suppression phase, but in a crime prevention phase,” Hylton said. “I intend to work very closely with grassroots efforts in the community and people who are very close to the problem so that the money can be invested and go directly toward those that are affected.”

That comes as music to Barnes’ ears. Barnes lost his son to gun violence so this is a very sensitive issue to him.

“We have a problem where we react to violence instead of trying to prevent it,” he said.  “I don’t think that those young people you did that horrific thing on just woke up that morning and said let’s start shooting people.”

While there has been a lot more cooperation between law enforcement officials from local jurisdictions, Barnes believes there needs to be more collaboration from community-based organizations in the region as well.

“We need to have a summit where meet,” he said. “Not just law enforcement because the problem of gang violence is not a legal issue; it’s a public health emergency.
“We should be bringing mental health people, social workers and psychologists to the table to develop a comprehensive regional approach.”

Despite recent events, violence is still down in both Prince George’s County and the District compared to last year.  However, officials say there’s still a growing threat of gang activity throughout the region.

“The gang issue is not isolated to one geographical area,” said Van Hollen.  “It really is one that is regional and why you see a concerted effort to address this very real challenge.”

 

George Barnette

Special to the AFRO