Arlington Police Chief Bolsters Unit Combating Gangs; Four Officers Added As Violence Escalates

Arlington Police Chief Bolsters Unit Combating Gangs; Four Officers Added As Violence Escalates

The Washington Post

November 06, 2003, Thursday, Final Edition


LENGTH: 657 words

HEADLINE: Arlington Police Chief Bolsters Unit Combating Gangs; Four Officers Added As Violence Escalates

BYLINE: Patricia Davis, Washington Post Staff Writer

At a time when concern about gang activity is increasing, Arlington Police Chief M. Douglas Scott has decided to increase county resources dedicated to attacking the problem by expanding the department’s gang unit from one full-time officer to five.

By turning up the heat, Scott said, he hopes to send a message to gangs that “it’s not easy to set up shop in Northern Virginia.” The four additional gang officers have been reassigned from other duties in the department.

Scott, who became the county’s police chief seven months ago, said there has been “an undercommitment” of resources to the county’s gang problem, noting that gang members are recruiting members as young as elementary-school age.

Scott’s decision to expand the unit coincides with calls from a state gang task force for harsher penalties and anti-gang lessons in schools as early as kindergarten. A federal grand jury in Alexandria is conducting a sweeping investigation into the Salvadoran gang MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, triggered by the mutilation and slaying of rival gang member Joaquim Biaz, 19, on federal property in Alexandria in 2001.

Arlington’s new gang unit officially went to work Oct. 19, just as the first of seven trials was about to start in Arlington Circuit Court in the gang-related stabbing death in April of Cesar Antonio Rios-Garcia, 19, at an Econo Lodge. In a separate proceeding, a court hearing was held recently in an alleged plot by gang members to kill a police officer.

According to police, about a dozen gangs are active in the region, and gang members have been linked to at least five killings in Northern Virginia in recent years as well as numerous assaults with baseball bats and machetes. Police point to MS-13 as the most violent and fastest growing in the area.

Until now, the gang unit has primarily been a unit of one — Detective Rick Rodriguez. While officers have been rotated in to help him, Rodriguez has almost single-handedly attacked the problem on myriad fronts, collecting intelligence about gangs, educating the community and training officers.

Scott praised Rodriguez for his unwavering commitment but said “the breadth of the challenge” is too much for one detective to shoulder.

“I see the benefit of having a team,” Scott said. “It’s something that’s a concern to me.”

Detective Leo Bello, who has joined Rodriguez on the team, said a big component will be educating the community and working closely with school resource officers to prevent children from being lured into gangs. If parents suspect gang activity, the officers will be available for house calls as part of program known as GRIP, or Gang Resistance Involving Parents.

Three members of the team are fluent in Spanish, an asset in a community in which the vast majority of active gangs are Hispanic, Bello said.

County board member J. Walter Tejada (D) welcomes the additional resources but said police cannot fight the problem alone. Realizing the difficulties that many working parents face, some juggling two or more jobs, Tejada said there must be more parental involvement and “positive activities” to thwart the appeal of gangs to children.

Bello said the team would like to establish a volunteer program staffed by plastic surgeons to remove gang tattoos. Detectives will continue to work closely with law enforcement agencies in other jurisdictions, locally and out of state, he said. “Since gangs are extremely mobile, we need to be, too,” Bello said.

Bello said the spate of violence in recent years by MS-13 members in Northern Virginia may be attributed to their reputation for being “too soft.” Gang members in Los Angeles, where MS-13 took root during the mid-1980s, have sent word here that their counterparts need to step up the violence, he said.

The new gang unit is spreading its message on the streets of Arlington.

“We’re going to be out there looking for them,” Bello said.

LOAD-DATE: November 06, 2003

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