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How police can fight gangs — and win

A police crime scene.

A police crime scene. Credit: iStock

I sat in a large meeting room in the New York field office of the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2009 to attend a three-day seminar offered by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The Sunshine State had been experiencing an increase in gang-related serious crime. Primarily, the offenses included murder, robbery, assault, thefts and extortion. There were some cases that involved immigrants here illegally as well.

With some hesitation, the hosts of the seminar acknowledged that the crimes occurred while local police officers simply reacted to them individually, treating most instances as isolated incidents. Police patrols were increased, crimes were investigated and where cases could be made, arrests occurred.

However, there was little local intelligence collection and databases lacked any connective tissue or detail other than general biographical information of people previously questioned or arrested in connection with crimes.

In response, the Florida department put together a bold strategy. It decided that the gangs would be “viciously” attacked through a creative use of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. The department decided to prosecute the gang bangers as members of a “criminal enterprise.”

Today, we are experiencing a similar level of violence and disorder in Brentwood and Central Islip, where residents are right to be concerned over a spike in gang-related crime.

The Suffolk County Police Department has an intelligence squad, and, along with the district attorney’s office and the federal government, the county has the option to prosecute under RICO statutes. Through local task forces, most town and village departments can gather critical gang activity information. But a large problem looms if the five eastern towns don’t learn a lesson from Florida’s smaller districts.

The essential element of an effective attack on gangs is identifying members and closely tracking their activities. Gangs are mostly regional or territorial, and it is the responsibility of the municipal police to gather the information and establish an elaborate databank. Robust police responses, not routine action, is required.

Every time a Southampton cop makes a traffic stop, or a Southold officer conducts a field interview, or a Riverhead patrol officer arrests or interrogates a suspect, or a code enforcement officer in Montauk inspects a building — it’s a chance to collect names, cellphone numbers, addresses, emails, banking information, car registrations and myriad other facts, and an opportunity arises. Intelligence gathering is not passive and debriefing contacts is not only legal but also effective. In combination with data sharing (among the towns) and RICO prosecutions, some crimes may be stopped before they occur.

It should be noted that RICO prosecutions are not simple. They require predicate crimes, as well as carefully defining gang membership by names, colors and signs. Without broad-based intelligence gathering, it is impossible to beat back this type of criminal behavior.

Police patrols and community outreach alone won’t do it.

Michael Butler, an author and lawyer, is a retired Nassau County police captain and former intelligence analyst with the DEA and FBI.

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