Loose gang structure complicates Augusta count

Adam Folk and Preston Sparks (The Augusta Chronicle)
March 20, 2010

Is it 25? How about five? Or could it be as high as 40?

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA – When it comes to gangs in Augusta, it seems the number depends on who’s asked, the definition of what constitutes such activity and how well it’s organized.

Richmond County school safety Sgt. Charlie Alston, who has been giving gang-awareness classes to parents and school administrators, says there are at least 25 gangs in the area, based on what he’s heard and witnessed at schools.

“We find out they’re popping up every day,” he said. He recently heard of a new gang called Latin Kings that has showed up at a south Augusta high school he declined to name.

Alston said he uses three criteria to determine whether an area has gangs: “Do we have graffiti written all over our city? Do we have unexplained killings of young people in our area? And the third thing is do we have young men and women that will stand up and tell you … ‘I’m backing my home boy; this is my dog; this is my clique; this is my turf’? Then we have a gang problem.”

Capt. Scott Peebles said he puts the number of well-organized gangs in Richmond County at about five. But loosely organized gang operations number in the 40s, he said. These are groups that might claim to be a set of a national gang, but they don’t send money to the larger organization and don’t take orders from the big gangs.

“That’s not to say people who are in gangs here don’t do drug trafficking, they don’t do burglaries and armed robberies and all of that,” he said. “But they do it for the sake of the participants at that point in time, and those are the people who primarily benefit.”

Richmond County sheriff’s Sgt. Blaise Dresser said gangs in Augusta tend to be neighborhood-based. But the territory lines are fuzzy at best, and gang affiliations change frequently, he said.

“There is some organization to some of the gangs, but most of them are very loosely organized,” Dresser said.

The legal definition of a gang under Georgia law is a group of three or more engaging in any of a list of criminal activities that range from racketeering, rape and aggravated sodomy to graffiti, criminal trespass and criminal damage. Some police agencies — including those in DeKalb and Richmond counties — use a gang identification criteria sheet that has 15 questions, each of which carries points based on the answer. A suspect who gets more than 10 points is automatically labeled a gang member.

Questions range from whether a group is involved in graffiti (two points), whether members wear gang colors or sag their pants (two points) or whether members have gang-related tattoos (8 points). DeKalb senior investigative aide Bridget Lewis said her county has more than 100 gangs.

“It’s pretty bad here,” she said.

In Chattanooga, Tenn., area leaders and police recently held a summit to address their gang problem, with police telling the Chattanooga Times Free Press that nine out of that city’s 19 killings last year were gang-related.

Alston said he would call the Augusta area’s gang situation “pretty significant because of what’s happening. People are getting beat up because they’re walking in the wrong neighborhood.”

Police say a Butler High student was severely beaten recently while walking his girlfriend home from school. Two teens arrested in the case reportedly said they were members of the “Apple Valley Posse” gang and that they had been prowling the area looking for someone to attack. In an unrelated January case that police said was gang-related, a 16-year-old was fatally shot on Monte Carlo Drive.

Though some claim a gang based on a neighborhood they grew up in, Dresser said not everyone who does so is a criminal. He said many young people might claim a gang for protection but don’t actively participate in criminal activity.

Better coordination with the schools is essential to stopping gang problems, he said, and he praised the efforts the Richmond County Board of Education has made to bring parents into the fight.

Alston said the key is getting everyone on the same page regarding the scope of the gang situation in Augusta.

“You’ve got to recognize there is a problem to solve the problem,” he said.

Sheriff Ronnie Strength said he’s concerned about the recent violence and what appears to be a resurgence of gang activity in Augusta. He said his office’s 2007 undercover Augusta Ink operation dealt a “terrific blow” to the major gangs in the area, but they appear to have regrouped.

“We knew over time that groups would start getting back together — and of course they have,” he said. “They are here again and we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.”

Still, as he has done recently for the Augusta Commission, Strength drew a distinction between more organized gangs in larger cities and those locally.

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