Between 2003 and 2008, Northern Virginia averaged roughly five gang-related crimes a day, according to a report published earlier this year. While the region is below the national average based on its size during that span, those five incidents every day added up to more than 10,000 reported gang-related offenses.
With the areas estimated gang population hovering around 5,000, according to the report, Alexandria is not exempt from gang activity.
Last week, the city announced that it would be the recipient of a $250,000 earmark secured by Rep. Jim Moran (D-8) to bolster its efforts toward limiting and staunching the wounds inflicted by the regions estimated 80 to 100 street gangs.
Officials are eager to use the earmark, a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, to prevent the spread of those gangs already established in the city Latin Homies, Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings and MS-13, the areas largest gang and others looking to gain a foothold.
The money allows the citys gang prevention and intervention office to redouble its efforts to keep at-risk Alexandria youth too busy to fall into gang activity.
You have to stay on top of it or its just like anything else: If you dont take care of the problem progressively, it will spiral out of control, said Lillian Brooks, director of the citys court services unit, which oversees social work geared toward gang issues.
Moran said he was proud to obtain the money to bolster his constituents work fighting a crime threat that is constantly changing.
For almost five years now, Moran said, communities in Northern Virginia have been working together in a comprehensive approach for combating gang activity, which includes sharing intelligence and best practices across jurisdictional lines.
As a result, not only is the region safer, but more children who were once the prime target of gang violence, drug peddling and recruitment have the chance to lead better lives, he said.
The span to which Moran referred is detailed in a regional task forces report of gang activity from 2003 to 2008. According to that report referenced above, one in five reported gang-related crimes are classified as serious.
Alexandria accounted for 74 of those crimes, or less than 4 percent of the total, over the six years of the study.
Our problem could be a whole lot worse than it is, so this money does enable us to keep the gang activity in the city low, Brooks said. If we dont get kids early enough then they could join gangs and its even more difficult.
Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne, in charge of the citys detention center where gang members charged with a crime await trial, praised the citys efforts to date in limiting involvement in criminal groups before it becomes a crisis.
Alexandrias done a good job of getting out in front of the gang problem, Lawhorne said. Anytime that you spend money on prevention … it pays off in the long run. Theres nothing worse than having a gang problem because its like a cancer, it can ruin your city.
With population increases expected to continue indefinitely city projections anticipate the city will be home to 170,000 by 2030 and the historical base age group for gang participation, ages 10 to 25, anticipated to grow as well, there will simply be more young people to steer away from a life of crime.
Alexandria Police Detective Sean Casey, a member of the departments gang unit, said the number of youth he deals with as part of the gang unit is about what he had expected when he began.
The average age of a gang member could be from 12 to 30, but I have seen a lot of youth so far, Casey said, adding that home life and peer pressure are two of the biggest contributors to gang participation.
The citys gang prevention and intervention office will look to bolster several of its existing programs with the $250,000 grant, which Brooks expects to receive in the next couple weeks once the Justice Department accepts its application.
At the top of the list is adding a full-time outreach worker to its current two part-time positions. The new person would focus on at-risk students between grades three and six.
They reach out to kids who are not connected with any kind of positive activity, arent involved in sports or are just hanging around doing nothing, Brooks said. We know from research that kids who are not connected to school activities or any after-school activities are at risk for gang involvement.
Outreach workers, referred by social and resource workers to at-risk children, have kept 100 Alexandria kids from getting into trouble with gangs or the law with zero percent recidivism, Brooks said.
The outreach program weve had so far has been so successful that we really think it will only help to increase it for younger children, she said.
Casey said any increase prevention and intervention outreach work could only help as long as it continues to be done the right way.
I cant see it hurting and I cant see it not working if you get proactive people out there involved in this and save various juveniles and kids from getting involved, that naturally has a [positive] effect.
Brooks and Mike Mackey, the citys gang prevention and intervention coordinator, are also planning to add a full-time mentorship coordinator to those programs around the city. The new position would help existing mentor providers improve their programs, recruit more mentors and train mentors.
The new funding helps target an area that we really need to pay attention to, Brooks said, but the money will not be used to fill any budget openings that existed before.
She expects the money to last the department about a year and help more at-risk youth stay busy in a constructive way too busy to get involved with gangs when conditions might otherwise conspire against that goal.
Its the economy, family situations, maybe parents working all different hours and theres no supervision theres a whole bunch of factors and thats why we try to keep kids busy with positive stuff, Brooks said.