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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Can a special court better address LI's gang problem?

Dee Thompson walked the streets near a youth center Wednesday, following a police detective and a trail of blood from a Monday attempted robbery in Huntington Station.

"I didn't even know what it was until he told me," she said.

Police, who are still investigating, have arrested two suspects in the Monday incident. They are also investigating the drive-by shooting of two men, also in Huntington Station, on Tuesday. Police have made no determination that either incident is gang related.

Thompson, executive director of the local community enrichment center, is tired of violence in the community. "I won't be surprised if they find out that it's gangs," she said, her voice managing to sound both angry and weary.

"It seems like I'm always hearing something about MS this or Latin King that," she said, "or I'm hearing about somebody being shot or something. It's got to stop."

Huntington Station, like Brentwood, Bay Shore, Central Islip, Wyandanch and North Bellport, are among the communities hard-hit by Long Island's gang problem. Which makes a measure pending before the State Senate all the more necessary.

The Assembly last week passed a measure, sponsored by Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood), to create a pilot project in Suffolk County that would put all gang-related crimes into one specialized court.

"Right now, tagging [gang graffiti] is in one court, robbery is in another and homicide is somewhere else," said Ramos. "The pilot would allow us to put everything into one court, with every defendant screened by a team from probation and social workers."

Ramos' goal is to get the cases of gang leaders and hard-core members before judges and dealt with by the criminal justice system more quickly.

At the same time, Ramos said, a gang court would steer low-level and nonviolent offenders deemed credible candidates for rehabilitation into the social services system.

It's a model that has worked well in drug and other specialized or so-called "problem-solving" courts. California has a similar model for gangs.

Ramos' view of gangs as a lawmaker parallels Thompson's view as a community leader: She wants gang-related activity, no matter its form, out of Huntington Station.

Still, she said, "I see a lot of school kids who are scared to become gang members and who are scared not to become gang members. We've got to find a way to get to them."

Which, she said, makes a gang court in Suffolk worthy of a try. "It certainly would be timely," she added.

The measure also appeals to Steve Bellone, supervisor of Babylon Town. While Wyandanch gets most of the gang-related attention, Babylon has seen activity growing in other communities. "It's worse in some areas than in others," Bellone said, "but it's here."

And not just in Huntington or Babylon. In Brentwood, residents began organizing after five gang-related shootings in almost as many months. And while investigations by police and federal law enforcement officials have resulted in plentiful arrests, it hasn't been enough.

"We as a region haven't really begun to deal with this issue effectively on an enforcement or a prevention level," Bellone said. " . . . A gang court can begin to focus attention and that's what the region needs."

Ramos said that a pilot project would be eligible for federal funds. And that the court wouldn't duplicate other work because cases that otherwise would be handled by other courts would be consolidated into one.

The proposal passed the Assembly last week and is awaiting action from the State Senate, where it is sponsored by Sen. Brian Foley (D-Blue Point), when it returns to Albany.

A specialized court won't solve the region's gang problem. But it will help. And, with violence spiking in so many communities, Long Island needs all the help it can get.

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