Gaithersburg Takes Leadership Role In Suppression, Intervention and Prosecution of Gangs

Gaithersburg has won a federal grant to run a pilot program using digital surveillance cameras to combat gang crime. The pilot is to run for one year. The cameras, to be initially located in Olde Towne, should be installed by January 2011.

Congratulations to the city and its Police Department for a continued proactive approach to combat gang crime.

It’s not easy public policy because just acknowledging gangs are around is bad PR. But there are gangs in Gaithersburg — and there are gangs everywhere. According to a gang prosecutor in the State’s Attorney’s Office who also teaches law, there were gangs in America before the country was founded and there will always be gangs.

Is the problem in Gaithersburg suddenly worse? No. Nobody says that. 

Gang problems are regional. Problems move around. Statistics are slippery. 

I first wrote a newspaper article about the gang problem in Montgomery County and the region a dozen years ago. In the years since, I have written five news stories or columns about some aspect of gangs.

I notice that whenever resources are devoted to fighting gang crime, it makes the news. Understandably, gangs make people uncomfortable.

Gaithersburg resident and Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews chairs that Council’s Public Safety Committee. Last week members of his and another Council committee were briefed by police, prosecutors, social services people and others on the status of inter-jurisdictional cooperation in the county’s efforts to fight gangs.

He reports there is “excellent coordination” and is pleased by a “significant decrease in gang-related crime that mirrors a general decrease in the crime rate locally and nationally.” 

There are six Montgomery County police districts in the county. District three — Silver Spring’s — numbers for gang crime were highest. The sixth district, which encompasses both Gaithersburg and Montgomery Village, was second.

Overall, gang crime in the county has gone down for the first quarter of 2010 — and for the last several years, there has been a downward trend in gang crime.

Andrews shed some light on my observation that gang crime news — even when the amount of crime is small — seems to have a very loud sound.

“Street crime,” Andrews explained, “has a ripple effect on the perception of public safety.”

A three-pronged approach to gang crime — prevention, intervention and suppression — is shared by the Gaithersburg Police Department and the Montgomery County Police Department. Gaithersburg shares some services with the county department, and the two entities work together on many things.

As a reporter, I have always encountered a high degree of openness and accessibility working with the Gaithersburg P.D. when I have had questions about gangs.

Also the Gaitherburg police keep a very comprehensive data bank on all contacts with gang members and do not hesitate to answer questions about numbers.

This week Gaithersburg P.D. Detective Patrick Word told me that at the current time, there are 10 regional gangs operating in the city with 150 to 200 members.

It is estimated by the county that there are 40 gangs throughout the county.

In Gaithersburg, “our entire agency,” said Word, tracks gang contacts.

Therefore even when city police are called for something that is not a gang crime, or there is a crime in which a gang member is victim, the interaction with that individual is noted by Gaithersburg police as a gang contact. Information on individuals in gangs is updated at constantly.

“We are keeping our own numbers, and our number are accurate,” said Word. “We know what’s happening in our city.

“Usually in difficult economic times like these, crime goes up. We are lucky in our city that we have not seen an increase.”

Luck?

Mayor Katz has always been willing to talk gangs when I have asked for input.

Discussing the Olde Towne camera pilot program, the mayor said there has been no recent surge in gang activity in the city. But, he added, “[If crime is low] and you don’t do something, it doesn’t mean it will stay low.”

Katz emphasizes that the use of digital surveillance technology in Olde Towne, “is a trial.”

 Of course, there are important issues concerning the use of digital surveillance cameras to improve public safety for us to consider in this trial.

In some places, surveillance video has been used to hurt innocent people. There is debate about privacy and the impact on the U.S. Constitution’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure. People disagree on whether the data show the cameras lower the incidence of crime or aid effective prosecution. Some people say the cameras just move crime to hidden pockets.

This discussion will now take place in Gaithersburg, too.

I look forward to it.

Comments: karen@towncourier.com.

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