Montgomery County officials plan to seek emergency funding from the County Council to try to suppress a spike in gang-related violence.
Police Chief Tom Manger said he has been working with County Executive Ike Leggett on a plan that will go to the Council soon and State’s Atty. John McCarthy said he will request $400,000 for more staff.
“We’ve got 18 people dead in the last two years. We’ve got increasing gang violence. Some of these things are out of our control but what we are doing now isn’t working,” said McCarthy in a blunt assessment before the Council’s Public Safety Committee Monday.
McCarthy said a grand jury should be empaneled to target gang leadership and that the Maryland General Assembly should to pass a state law like the federal RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act because the current state anti-gang law is unworkable.
The spike in gang violence contrasts with the overall crime picture in Montgomery County, where most crime statistics were relatively flat in 2016 compared to 2015. Homicides declined from 30 to 15, one-quarter the national average for jurisdictions like Montgomery County with close to one million in population, said Manger.
Gangs are responsible for only a small percentage of crime in the county but there has been an increase in gang violence and a larger proportion of that violence committed by younger gang members, Manger told the committee.
McCarthy said he is convinced that some illegal gang activity is never reported to police by fearful victims.
“There are segments in this community that are paying protection money to gangs to live safely,” said McCarthy.
The recent violence is blamed in part on a recruitment drive by MS-13, a gang headquartered in El Salvador but with branches across the U.S.
In 2009, then U. S. Attorney for Maryland, Rod Rosenstein, now the deputy attorney general, decimated MS-13 in Maryland by prosecuting 42 of its leaders, said McCarthy, but now the gang is mounting a comeback.
More recently Montgomery police have cooperated in investigations that led to 17 indictments against MS-13 members and more indictments are expected in the coming weeks, said Captain Paul Liquorie, director of the Special Investigations Division.
McCarthy said the current state anti-gang statute cannot be used against gang leaders because it requires prosecutors to prove they were directly involved in underlying crimes. He said his office is preparing a stronger law and that he will try to find sponsors within the county delegation.
McCarthy will seek three more prosecutors, two in Circuit Court and one in Juvenile Court, and two paralegals, one to monitor social media, to go after gang leaders. He said he can have the unit running within 30 days. Police officials pledged to transfer officers if necessary to comply with the plan being devised by Leggett and Manger.
McCarthy said one challenge is convincing people that youths as young as 16 can be gang leaders. In one case, McCarthy said, a Juvenile Court judge said, “I don’t want to hear about gangs.”
Councilmembers Nancy Navarro and Sidney Katz stressed that there needs to be some funding on the prevention side to try to dissuade youths from joining gangs. Navarro singled out the work of the county’s Street Outreach Network.
The Public Safety Committee also discussed the opioid drug crisis and “counterfeit” drugs.
Liquourie said police recently arrested a Bethesda man in possession of what appeared to be Xanax and MDMA (Molly) but upon testing turned out to be filled with opioids that are addictive. In Philadelphia police seized marijuana laced with opioids.
“Young people buy ‘Rave’ drugs that turn out to be nothing but synthetic opioids,” said Liquorie.
Citing the recent murders of two Northwest High School students, Councilmember Craig Rice warned of the dangers of trafficking with dealers.
“Just because you are purchasing marijuana doesn’t mean you aren’t putting your life at risk by going to that drug deal,” said Rice.
Find the most recent crime statistics report here.
Public Safety Committee Update on Gang Activity