Asheville gang fighting efforts curb gun crime

By Clarke Morrison • June 12, 2009 02:12 PM

ASHEVILLE — The Los Angeles-entrenched Crips gang once had members operating so brazenly in Asheville they made their own video and posted it on YouTube. Most of the men in that video now face criminal charges, law enforcement agencies said Thursday in a show of what they’ve done to curb gang and gun crime.

Thirty Crips gang members now face 140 felony charges filed since 2006, Asheville police Capt. Tim Splain said at a news conference. Calls involving guns ? down in 2008 for the first time in years ? continue to drop.

Police have identified about three dozen Crips members operating primarily out of the Lee Walker Heights and Klondyke Homes public housing complexes in Asheville, the department said.

?They terrorize the neighborhoods,? Asheville Police Chief Bill Hogan said. ?We know of cases where robberies occurred on numerous occasions, (and) they are not reported because (gang members) dominate the neighborhood and frighten people.?

There is no doubt police have made their presence known in Lee Walker Heights, said Tony Edwards, who on Thursday was visiting relatives living in the complex.

?It’s made a difference,? Edwards said.

But not everyone believes that has been entirely a good thing, said Angie Bangura, who moved into Lee Walker in November with her three children.

?I have seen a lot more police, but they seem to be pinpointing the wrong people,? Bangura said. ?I saw them swarm a visitor and ask for an ID.?

Splain at the Thursday news conference played the YouTube video, which showed Crips members outside a building at Lee Walker Heights boasting of their gang affiliation.

?This should be kind of a wake-up call,? Splain said.

Numbers look better

Law enforcement agencies said coordinated and focused attention on gang crime in Asheville and surrounding areas has led to the drop in gang activity and gang-related crime.

City police in 2004 recorded 713 calls for service involving guns. That number climbed to 859 in 2006, a 20 percent increase.

In 2007, police recorded 891 gun calls, including 50 gunshot wounds, 574 reports of gunshots and 267 reports of a person with a gun. The number of calls declined 12 percent to 788 in 2008, and the number is 212 through the first five months of this year. That rate would put the total at an estimated 534 by year’s end, a drop of 40 percent from the peak in 2007.

?We have gotten ahead of the curve,? Hogan said. ?There has been a lot of collaboration.?

Asheville police formed a gang unit in 2008, assigning two full-time investigators to the effort. The agency earlier this year joined with the Buncombe County and Henderson County sheriff’s offices to create the Western North Carolina Gang Task Force.

The agreement brought together five investigators in one office to share intelligence and resources, and allows officers to pursue suspects in gang-related crimes across jurisdictional boundaries.

Gang members are flagged in a records management system, and the information is shared with patrol officers, drug suppression officers and other agencies, Splain said.

?If they commit a crime, we recognize them as a gang member, and we give them special attention after that happens and try to get them prosecuted and dealt with in the most significant manner that we can,? he said.

A new focus

Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore said such sharing of information is crucial.

?We have a list of people who are validated gang members, and we’re checking them every week to see what new charges they’ve picked up,? he said. ?We’re trying to get them off the street for an extended period of time before they seriously hurt anybody.?

Henderson County Sheriff Rick Davis said an FBI report states that gang activity is moving out of the Charlotte metropolitan area into the Asheville and Hendersonville areas.

And Splain said local gang members appear to be changing their approach to crime.

?We hear from gang members that lots of them don’t sell drugs anymore, that the only thing they do is street robberies,? he said. ?They go out there and rob because it’s easier to do.?

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