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VOL. 127 | NO. 151 | Friday, August 3, 2012

New Gang Unit Takes All-Out Approach

By Bill Dries

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There are few pieces of gang graffiti that are a more certain indicator of gang activity than the word Hoover.

Pitchforks and multi-pointed stars and certain numbers could be the work on bona fide gang members or those who aspire to gang membership – called “wannabes” by police.

But Hoover is either the name of the alleged founder of the Gangster Disciples street gang or a reference to another gang that takes its name from a street in the Los Angeles area. Either way, it is not a name used lightly.

It turned up recently in Frayser on the wall of the Poor Clare Monastery on Dellwood Avenue – what has to be one of the oldest brick walls in the community north of North Memphis and south of Millington. Other parts of the wall show the faded remnants of past gang markings. But the walls aren’t as scarred by the graffiti as newer surfaces in a part of the city where gang life is a fact of life.

A new anti-gang unit modeled on an aggressive anti-gang coalition and effort in Fresno County, Calif., has as its goal a much less gradual fade out for gang activity in the city and surrounding area.

The Multi-Agency Gang Unit is the successor to the old Metro Gang Unit that was a basic partnership between the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office and the Memphis Police Department as well as the District Attorney General’s office.

But Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich said it is more than a resumption of the old unit. Its goal is an “immediate law enforcement response to any and all gang activity,” she said.

The new effort, about a year in the making, is different in its inclusion of federal agencies including the U.S. Attorney’s office for Western Tennessee; the FBI; the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the Shelby County District Attorney General’s office.

The leaders of all four of those agencies, as well as Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham and Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong, are on the unit’s board of directors.

The unit has two teams – operations and prosecution.

The operations team is the law enforcement boots on the street side. Marcus Watson, the resident agent in charge of the Memphis office of the ATF, heads it.

The prosecution team is the courtside of the effort and it is headed by Assistant District Attorney Ray Lepone, the chief prosecutor of the office’s gang and narcotics unit who has prosecuted gang cases and gang members for the last decade.

“One of the biggest changes is the number of juveniles carrying guns and how brazen and violent they’ve become – taking over these neighborhoods where grandmothers can’t come out on their porches,” he said. “We can’t allow that to happen.”

Armstrong insisted on a strong gang prevention element in the new unit’s work that goes beyond a spike in arrest numbers and cases on court dockets.

“I basically said that I wouldn’t include MPD’s participation in it if there was not a prevention piece in it,” Armstrong said.

Lepone and Weirich also said they are interested in prevention as part of an effort larger than filing charges and conviction rates in court.

“What we are doing is we’re kind of creating a collaborative show of force where we are all going to start together each day – all the agencies – and focus our efforts together, which makes you stronger and brings a greater show of force,” Lepone said.

The 15-year-old Fresno Multi-Agency Gang Enforcement Coalition unit that is the model for the Memphis effort is a coalition of 30 law enforcement agencies and is billed as the largest long-term consolidation in law enforcement history.

It includes the forensic lab of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, which analyzes drugs seized by the gang unit. As part of the alliance agreement, the unit gets official analysis by the lab of its evidence in one working day or less.

Members of the unit are trained in the integrated ballistics identification system.

The cooperation is detailed beyond general statements of working together.

The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, for instance, charges a booking fee to agencies that make an arrest and have a person arrested put in one of the four jails run by the sheriff.

The fee caused a lot of the agencies making the arrests to issue citations for misdemeanors rather than take someone to jail.

For the gang unit, the sheriff agreed to wave the booking fee as the unit pursued a policy of specifically arresting and detaining gang members for misdemeanors.

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