Police shed light on gangs
By Caitlin Davis, Senior Staff Writer
May 8, 2013, 09:41
CAITLIN DAVIS/HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT Keith Applewhite, with the Virginia Gang Investigators Association, holds up strands of beads for the audience at the gang forum on Saturday. He said a simple strand of beads can be used to identify a gang member.
It can be something as simple as the color of a hat, a backpack, beads around someone’s neck or a tattoo. All these things can be used to identify a gang member. Members of the surrounding communities gathered at Hopewell High School on Saturday for the “Gang Awareness and Prevention Forum” and learned this information as well as prevention methods for suspected gang members.
Gang activity can be seen in the area, more recently with a shooting that occurred on Halloween night in 2012. Police responded to the 3600 block of Wilmington Avenue for a report of shots fired. After an investigation, nine people were arrested, including the juvenile who was shot that night. After an investigation, Police Chief John Keohane said the shooting was gang-related.
“There is definitely gang connections,” Keohane said back in December. “They are neighborhood-based for the most part. We know the two areas these factions live in and again we’ve been watching those areas very closely since the shooting.”
When the case came before the court in December of 2012, it did not go forward as expected. Two of the nine people involved in the case that were scheduled to testify said they were not going to testify and if put on the stand, they were going to change their testimony.
Keohane said based on the evidence from the case, he believes something was worked out on the streets before court that morning, though the question as to why remains unanswered.
“Something was worked out and again we don’t know where and we don’t know when,” Keohane said after the court ruling in December.
Keith Applewhite, with the Virginia Gang Investigators Association, gave the first presentation on Saturday and spoke on how to recognize gangs in the area. He said some of the first signs that can be seen are small groups that start to hang out in the area. Then he said graffiti can start to be seen around town.
Applewhite, who has had almost 20 years in law enforcement experience, said one of the biggest areas of focus when it comes to gangs is in the schools.
“You want to try and identify it as quickly as possible, especially in the schools,” Applewhite said. “This is a small town in and of itself. ... What happens in the schools goes back into the community. What happens in the community goes back into the schools.”
Dr. John Fahey, superintendent of Hopewell City Public Schools, was in attendance on Saturday and said he has seen “very, very little” gang activity in the schools.
“I don’t think I’ve seen any honestly,” Fahey said. “But we’re really vigilant and we’re on point to see if we notice anything, any changes in our kids. It’s a community issue and it’s out in the community and since we have 4,000 community members in our schools, if it’s out there it will come here.”
Fahey continued saying that he has seen it out in the community and knows it can come back to the school, but said he schools are prepared regardless.
“We’re just going to be vigilant and we’re going to do everything we can to help our kids,” Fahey said. “And our staff knows this isn’t something we’re going to tolerate. We’ve worked very closely with the police. If we see it, we share it with them.”
Applewhite said when it is out in the community, an increase in graffiti is seen along with an increase in crime and even assaults in schools. This increase is due to the recruitment into the gang.
“You have to commit yourself,” Applewhite said. “You have to commit that crime so they trust you. That’s typical of your local groups all the way up to your motorcycle gangs.”
He also said to make sure to intervene early. He said the older a child gets, the harder it becomes to draw them out of that lifestyle.
“The best time to intervene and guide them in a better direction is going to be that young middle school,” Applewhite said. He said many young people, especially young men, become affiliated in gangs because they are seeking a positive male influence. Though he said, it is the wrong place to search.
“There’s three places you end up if you become a gang member: prison, the hospital or the morgue,” Applewhite said.
The forum is not the only prevention tool that is in Hopewell. Amy Wight, director of the Gang Reduction and Intervention Program, Virginia Office of the Attorney General, said neighborhood watch groups and local crime solvers are integral parts to identify gangs in the area.
“Hopewell and Prince George have a lot of great resources and the same kind of success can happen here,” Wight said. “It all starts with prevention.”
Brian Swann, deputy secretary of Public Safety, Virginia Office of the Secretary of Public Safety, said the community members seated in the auditorium of the high school on Saturday were some of the most important resources for gang prevention.
“I know that the [police] chiefs are reaching out to you and there’s a reason for that,” Swann said. “Because they need that other piece to the puzzle and you all are a part of that puzzle.”
Bonnie Falls, scholarship program officer with the John Randolph Foundation, was in attendance on Saturday and was surprised to learn that gangs had seeped into the city.
“I honestly didn’t realize there was such an issue in the area,” Falls said. “So just trying to be more aware and understand so I can look out.”
Alexis Maitland, 18, though was home schooled for the last few years of her high school education, said when she was learning about the hand signs, the colors that are used to identify which gang a person is a member of, and even the tattoos, she recalled seeing that growing up.
“I was remembering some of the people my brother would hang out with,” Maitland said, who said her brother is four years younger. “He would come home and do the hand signs, like the Bloods. I really do remember that.” Maitland said at the time her brother was in middle school and immediately she told him to stop.
Applewhite said though the forum was only a few hours on a Saturday, he said it cannot be the last day that community members get an education on gangs.
“Today can’t be your last day learning about the gangs, even the young folks here, you’re going to be parents someday,” Applewhite said. “I see the violence. I see children losing their lives over and over again.”