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Suffolk jails boost staff to combat ‘overwhelming’ gang problem

In an effort to minimize conflict between gang-affiliated inmates in the Suffolk County lockups at Yaphank and Riverhead, a unit of officers under the County Sherriff roam the streets where gang activity has been documented to gather information about conflicts between gangs to keep peace among inmates. (Credit: James Carbone)

An increase in the number of street gang members and associates housed inside Suffolk County jails has prompted authorities in recent months to boost the number of investigators assigned to the gang intelligence unit, officials said.

Lt. Investigator Phillip Trocchio, head of the gang intelligence unit in the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, called the gang problem “overwhelming.”

“They just keep adding to their stockpile of individuals in the gangs and they’re continuing to grow,” Trocchio said. “To keep tabs on it, it is very difficult.”

In the past eight months, the gang intelligence unit of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office assigned to work inside the two jails has grown from three investigators and one sergeant to six correction officer investigators, two sergeant investigators and one lieutenant investigator, officials said.

Their primary job is to keep tabs on 274 street gang members and associates currently incarcerated in Riverhead and Yaphank, officials said. The object is to keep peaceful coexistence of members of dozens of streets gangs inside the jail and gathering intelligence to use inside and outside the facilities.

Their arrival coincides with the fact that most gangs broke their own 10-year record for the number of members incarcerated at the two jails in 2016: The Bloods had 196 members within their walls, almost doubling their numbers from the previous year at 99. The MS-13 street gang had 87 members last year, their most since 2009, which was their highest at 129. The Crips had 58 members enter the jails, the most since the previous year at 41. The Latin Kings more than doubled their presence since 2006 with 57 from 23. The Bloods currently have the largest representation inside both jails currently with 86 members.

Last year, the gang unit identified 265 gang members and associates through interviews and conducted over 3,000 interviews with inmates. The investigators try to get inmates to self-identify as gang members so they can keep rival gangs away from each other inside the jail and prevent violent melees. Information the gang unit has gathered has thwarted murder and kidnapping attempts of key witnesses to crimes, officials say.

The intelligence unit works to identify the rankings of gang members, find out about violent street altercations and develop tips on future incidents — information that has been instrumental for the unit’s work both inside and outside the jails, officials say.

“A critical component of our gang-eradication strategy is working with other law enforcement agencies,” said Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini. “It’s like a puzzle. You may not know what pieces you’re missing, so sharing intel among agencies is critical to bringing effective prosecution of crimes.”

Brentwood was shaken last year when about a dozen MS-13 gang members, characterized as newcomers from Central America in their teens or early 20s, were suspected of at least six violent killings, sources said.

Two of those victims, two teenage girls identified as Nisa Mickens, 15, and Kayla Cuevas, 16, were beaten to death with bats and machetes in September. The teens were found dead hours after one of them had a dispute with MS-13 gang members at Brentwood High School’s Ross Center, sources said.

Sini, who said at the time that the injuries the girls suffered were some of the worst he’d ever seen, praised intelligence-sharing among agencies. The gang-unit officers routinely speak with Suffolk police officials and prosecutors to make sure they have key information.

Using that information, investigators have been able to build a map of Suffolk County that sits in the gang unit, tiny flags marking the territory of the different gangs.

The information allows law enforcement, for instance, to pay attention to parts of Babylon Town where both Bloods and Crips are jostling for position. The Town of Islip has a collection of Bloods, the Latin Kings and MS-13. A chunk of Riverhead Town has all three plus two others, a faction of white supremacists and a motorcycle gang known as 1 percent, investigators say.

And the map is ever-changing, officials said.

Gregory Monz, an investigator with the unit, said he was tipped off by a jail informant about territorial markings made by gangs inside a skate park in Brentwood. The informant also told Monz about a brewing rivalry among different groups divided by neighborhood within the MS-13 gang in Suffolk County.

“They’re fighting among themselves,” said Monz, who interviewed the high-ranking gang member housed at the jail in Riverhead about an order to unify rivals and earn more money. “They’re not performing. They’re not being evil enough.”

Debra Sterling, a coordinator for an anti-violence group called SNUG, which works with gang members and community residents in Wyandanch, said she knows the value of gathering information and how trust is always central to that.

“Not everyone wants to pick up a gun and shoot someone. If someone can mediate it and get both groups to sit down, they’re open for that,” said Sterling, who had brokered peace between Bloods and Crip factions in the neighborhood.

Despite having more members, the gang unit faces new challenges: gang leaders are instructing their members not to get tattoos or markings on their bodies of any kind, making it harder for investigators or law enforcement to identify them, and MS-13 members in particular are recruiting more citizens so that — if they get caught by police — they won’t be deported.

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