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Gang activity saw sharp decline in LaGrange in 2017

LaGrange Daily News - 1/13/2018

The LaGrange Police Department has put an emphasis on deterring gang activity within the city limits, and made significant progress to this end in 2017. The proof is in the numbers.

In 2017 there were only two gang-related shootings in the city limits, down significantly from 2014 to 2016, when LaGrange had an average of 16 gang-related shootings per year.

Realizing the city was seeing increased gang activity, the LaGrange Police Department formally started a gang squad in 2014. The gang squad works under the Special Investigations Unit and includes two investigators and a crime analyst.

In the four years since that unit was formed, gang-related crime numbers have been on the decline, but Lt. Dale Strickland, who heads the Special Investigations Unit, said it's not just the police department contributing to the lower gang statistics.

"I think it is directly attributed to key arrests of gang personnel, the heads of the gangs and the successful prosecution of those gang cases as well," Strickland said. "As I've said before, if we don't get the assistance in prosecution and from the judges in sentencing, then we are kind of spinning our wheels. I think it has worked all in conjunction with one another. Everybody involved knew there was an issue there. We made good cases, the prosecutors involved aggressively worked to prosecute them, and the judges recognized there was an issue and handed some stiff sentencing out."

Jack Winne, assistant district attorney for Coweta Judicial Circuit, was hired in 2016 as a gang prosecutor.

"I think LaGrange has had a gang problem for a long time," Winne said. "Beginning in 2014 is when I think the community had enough. The community leaders followed through and recognized the problem and dealt with it a lot more directly than other communities have. I think it's just recognizing the problem and doing something about it."

He said the LPD has been able to provide great evidence through their investigations. In turn, the district attorney's office has had strong cases. Winne said LaGrange has dealt with gangs like the Bloods, Crips, Gangster Disciples and the Ghost Face Gangsters.

Over the last week, defendants agreed to pleas in four different gang cases involving an alleged Bloods gang member.

"We have been able to build strong cases, and the judges have recognized the serious problem, really a crisis, that criminal street gangs have been," Winne said. "They have been handing out stiff sentences, and as a result we've been able to get really stiff negotiated pleas in gang cases."

The decrease in gang-related shootings might be the most eye-opening number, but other gang-related numbers have dropped as well. Violent crimes linked to gang activity dropped from 13 in both 2015 and 2016 to eight in 2017. Property crimes linked to gang activity also decreased to three, down from nine in 2016 and seven in 2015.

The number of gang crimes that resulted in a Violation of the Georgia Controlled Substances Act also dropped, going from 26 in 2016 to 16 in 2017, the lowest number in at least four years. Two numbers did rise - the number of weapons charges and "other" charges related to gang-activity. Weapons charges went up slightly from nine in 2016 to 10 in 2017. "Other" charges, which would include probation violations, went up from 13 to 22.

Strickland said the city's work to deter gang activity seems to be working, based on how wrongdoers act when gang charges are added. When LaGrange Police officers arrest someone and give them their charges, they often see a different reaction to a gang-related charge.

Even after a gang member has served his or her time, they may be put on probation and told not to be around other known gang activity.

"If they are seen by law enforcement hanging out with other gang members after they have been convicted of other gang charges, they can be brought back in front of the judge and can have to answer for hanging out with somebody who is known or is another convicted gang member," Strickland said.

Sometimes the LaGrange Police Department finds a younger person who wants to get out of a gang that has not committed a serious crime. In those cases, Strickland said they will work with the district attorney's office to try to ensure that person is not charged with a gang crime.

"We are zero tolerance until we run into a case where we think we can make a difference by not charging," he said.

Winne said many gangs target young people, such as middle school students.

He's hoping stronger sentences will make young people less likely to be a part of a criminal street gang.

"We want to really go after the ones we know are in leadership positions and the ones that reach adulthood and commit these serious crimes," Winne said. "We want to try to have a chilling effect and deter the younger kids."

Despite the lower numbers, Winne said gangs are still an issue in LaGrange, even if it is more under control than in the past.

"We are definitely making progress. That's because the diligence, the nights, weekends and the constant communication and constant careful attention that we give them," Winne said. "Our goal is to eradicate criminal street gangs, and I think we're making progress, and I think it's because of the commitment from the community and coordination between law enforcement, us and the community."

 
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