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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

GPD and ASO taking on local gang activity

Two officers jumped out of the police cruiser in a dead sprint.

A moment before, they were pulling up slowly behind two young men walking down NE 26th Terrace around 9 p.m on Feb. 20.

When the car got close, one of the men suddenly ran through a neighbor's yard.

Gainesville Police Department detective Jon Rappa sprained his ankle as he turned the corner of an unlit sidewalk, but officer Brett Kikendall finally tackled the man as he was entering a house.

The man was Keith L. Singleton, 20, a suspected gang member, Rappa said.

Cases like Singleton's have recently led both the Gainesville Police Department and the Alachua County Sheriff's Office to investigate and document gang activity in Gainesville in order to keep it from growing into a larger problem.

State Law and Gainesville Gangs

Investigation teams were formed after a Florida statute was passed in 2007 that enhances penalties for gang members.

The statute defines a gang as a group of three or more people who have a common name or unifying signs, colors or symbols and have two or more members who, individually or collectively, engage in or have engaged in criminal street gang activity.

Also last year, Rappa and other GPD officers attended a class on how to pursue gang prosecutions.

A few months ago, GPD assigned Rappa and another investigator to focus on gang-related crime, though they don't have an official "gang unit."

The sheriff's office created a formal gang unit - comprised of one deputy - around the same time.

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Although Gainesville does have a small presence of national gangs, such as Latin Kings, Bloods and Crips, the majority of street gangs are what Rappa calls "neighborhood cliques." These gangs are spread throughout Gainesville. Most gang members are between 14 and 18 years old, Rappa said.

The crimes they commit usually involve burglary, theft, property damage and, when they're older, narcotic sales.

Gang graffiti is also common, Rappa said, with the Star of David or a crown with five points representing different loyalties.

Rappa said he has documented about eight gangs in Gainesville so far, half of them being national gangs.

Deputy Richard LaLonde, who heads the gang unit for the sheriff's office, estimates the number of gangs in Alachua County to be about 16, including national gangs, neighborhood cliques and even motorcycle gangs.

The Importance of Intel

Before someone can be prosecuted as a gang member, police must document the gang and prove that the suspect is a member of that gang.

Therefore, intelligence gathering is the most action GPD is taking to combat gang activity, Rappa said.

"Information and intelligence are just so important to a police department," Rappa said. "It's just vital."

Because the gang teams at both GPD and the sheriff's office were created so recently, they haven't yet done much more than gather information. Rappa said while he receives most of his information from road patrol, the tactical impact unit and the street crime unit, he also conducts field interviews.

Sometimes he sees people hanging out on a street corner and approaches them.

"It doesn't have to be confrontational," he said. "You never know what you can find just getting out and talking to them."

Rappa keeps field cards from his interviews of different suspected or confirmed gang members containing their names, dates of birth, where they were found and descriptions of their clothes.

"It just helps us know who is hanging out where," he said.

Rappa and LaLonde also work together, sharing information, LaLonde said.

The sheriff's office is working on new ways of storing intelligence, as well as educating local law enforcement agencies about how to recognize the signs of gang activity.

LaLonde also communicates with agencies in surrounding counties.

Street Families

The Rev. Karl Anderson is the president of People Against Violence Enterprises, or P.A.V.E., a Gainesville organization that raises awareness about youth violence.

Anderson said neighborhood cliques are prevalent throughout the city, and his organization seeks to reduce gang activity by informing parents and raising awareness in the community.

Anderson believes the main reason young people join gangs is for acceptance, he said.

"Parents don't spend time with them," he said. "They feel more loved and receive more attention on the streets."

LaLonde agreed that gangs offer members a sense of family they may be missing.

But many gangs require initiations, such as beat-ins or criminal activity, which are supposed to build trust, LaLonde said.

"It also means now they have something on you," he said. "That doesn't sound like love to me."

Erick Baker, the director for the Boys & Girls Club of America Woodland Park Unit in East Gainesville, said it is not just a lack of family supervision that pushes kids into gangs.

"A lot of it comes from kids who aren't bad, but kids who are bored," Baker said.

He said Alachua County doesn't offer enough age-appropriate activities for middle- and high school-age children, and most jobs that would normally be filled by this age group are given to college students.

A lack of discipline and structured family life also contribute to neighborhood gangs, Baker said.

"The friends are now taking the place of the family," he said. "They're more loyal to the streets than they are to their family."

Gangs have also been glorified in popular culture by icons like Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent, LaLonde said.

Growing Pains

Unlike national gangs, the allegiance of neighborhood clique members to their gang is usually fairly loose.

Anderson said that once gang members move to a new neighborhood, their alliances change.

"They're territorial but the individuals aren't as devoted as, say, a Blood or a Crip," he said.

Rappa said most members start to outgrow their neighborhood groups in their early 20s. Some then join a more serious gang, but others choose to just move on.

The loyalty of gang members is also usually quickly forgotten when they're facing serious charges, LaLonde said, and many will snitch under pressure.

"There isn't too much honor among thieves," he said.

Warren English, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Gainesville coordinator, said most neighborhood cliques aren't gangs, just children thinking they're a gang.

"To me it's just immaturity and not understanding what a gang is," English said.

English said although young people may represent their neighborhoods, they're usually not committing crimes together in an organized way, and they usually stop after high school. Despite local law enforcement's recent focus on gangs, Rappa said he doesn't think Gainesville has a "gang problem" because gangs are not rampant and are invisible to the average citizen.

"If you don't stay on top of it, you'll have a problem," Rappa said. "That's all we're trying to do - stay on top of it."

LaLonde said although gangs are not a big problem right now in Alachua County, gang activity is increasing statewide, and law enforcement needs to monitor it.

"I think if we have one gang in Alachua County, we have one too many," he said. "They're like cockroaches."

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