Originally created 11/02/06

Georgia gets federal help with gang woes



SAVANNAH, Ga. - The U.S. Attorney's Office in Savannah began an anti-gang initiative Wednesday that included federal agents showing dozens of local law enforcement officers how to infiltrate gangs, halt drug shipments and conduct long-term investigations.

About 110 officers, government officials and community leaders attended the summit. They shared concerns and learned how other areas, including Orlando and Washington, D.C., are combating the problem. Both pointed to federal funding and partnerships between local and federal agencies.

But local police say they rarely get such help and don't have the resources to effectively combat gangs on their own. With 20 to 30 known gangs operating in Savannah, these programs are badly needed, Savannah-Chatham County police officials said.

"It's difficult to do with federal prosecution because of the time and manpower," interim chief Willie Lovett said. "I would love to see a federal agency come in and work with our gang unit and see how deep this gang problem in Chatham County is. We're just scratching the surface of what the possibilities are."

Garden City Police Chief David Lyons said his agency also has not received federal assistance for anti-gangs efforts.

That help will be coming soon, said Joe Newman, of the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of Georgia.

"The mere fact of the conference suggests a federal-state partnership and a willingness to work with locals," he said, adding that he didn't have any specific information on possible grant money.

"There are 1 million gang members in the U.S.," said Sharon Tracy, a professor of criminal justice at Georgia Southern University. "A law enforcement agency with a one- or two-member gang task force, that's not going to cut it. ... The local level is the greatest opportunity for success."

The FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office are now working to establish a Safe Streets task force of federal, state and local officers to combat "the growing gang problem," said William Kirkconnell, supervisory senior resident agent for the FBI in Savannah. The task force has been successful in Augusta, but faced some initial resistance in Savannah, the FBI said.

Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength said a new anti-gang task force is in effect here.

"It's a joint task force combating crime in Richmond, Columbia, Burke and McDuffie counties," the sheriff said.

He said his program is not called Safe Streets as in other regions, but the initiative has the same objective with FBI and ATF support. "We're up and running, but we're still waiting for federal funding to start up," he said Wednesday night.

"Our joint goal is to identify, investigate and prosecute gang members, and we're confident it will pay future dividends."

Police hope the task force will help them prosecute gang members federally.

In May, the Office of the Attorney General allocated $30 million to combat gangs and mandated federal prosecutors hold a gang summit, U.S. Attorney Lisa Godbey Wood said. The Southern District, which encompasses Savannah, Augusta and Brunswick, received $147,000.

Daniel J. Craig, district attorney in Augusta, said the Legislature needs to amend the state's gang statute to make prosecutions easier.

"We have a problem today that we didn't even acknowledge five years ago and is a whole lot worse than a year ago," he said.