Street gangs spread into suburbs, and police ramp up
Fighting over turf, spraying graffiti on buildings, and violent assaults are the types of activities often associated with street gangs in large cities. But urban gangs no longer hold a monopoly on such behavior.
An escalation of drug-related crimes, violence, and vandalism since late last summer has led police in the suburban communities of Amesbury, Newburyport, and Salisbury to conclude that they have a homegrown gang problem on their hands.
These tourist destinations have been unwitting hosts for years to isolated gang-related incidents spilling over from nearby cities, particularly during the summer months. But as new gang graffiti tags became more prominent in downtown areas, and gang members in custody were identified as local residents, police in the three communities realized the problems are no longer seasonal.
“It’s been termed a ‘suburban gang problem’ and it tends to fly under the radar in most places,’’ said Amesbury Police Sergeant Kevin Donovan. “Before the Police Department is aware of the problem, the gangs are already entrenched. We didn’t realize it, but we’re interconnected in the scene with the groups of kids between Amesbury, Salisbury, and Newburyport.’’
The problem came to a head on the afternoon of June 4 when a Newbury man believed to be a member of a local gang was stabbed in downtown Newburyport. Two suspects connected to the nonfatal stabbing, who are believed to be from another gang, were listed as residents of Amesbury and Newbury, according to police.
“It’s a group of kids migrating within the [bordering] communities, and they’re living in these communities,’’ Donovan said. Acknowledging that there’s a gang problem “is something people are resistant to because they want to label them ‘little punks’ or ‘troublemakers,’ but when you have a stabbing in a public area and a pattern of public violence, you have a problem. They don’t want to put in the brochure ‘Come visit us. We have this problem.’ ’’
Salisbury has dealt with seasonal gang violence for many years now by virtue of having a public beach that attracts out-of-towners, said Interim Police Chief Richard B. Merrill Jr. But about seven years ago, a group of locals calling themselves Crimesquad 4 Life 3:19 emerged, making their presence known by tagging 3:19 throughout the town, he said. Most recently, a group known as MFA, believed to have been started by former Crimesquad 4 Life 3:19 members, appeared on the scene, he added. In that time, the three communities have seen an increase in vandalism, car break-ins, drug activity, shoplifting, and graffiti, according to each department.
In Amesbury, some of the resident gang members have recently left school or high-risk youth programs and have no solid roots in the community, often bouncing between friends’ apartments or living in local rooming houses, said crime prevention officer Tom Hanshaw.
“Once they leave . . . school when they’re too old in their 20s, they’re hanging out with 17-year-olds, and that’s a dangerous thing,’’ Hanshaw said. “People say, ‘Oh, Amesbury is a nice quiet place where nothing ever happens,’ but you’re seeing it become where things are getting dangerous. . . . It used to be groups of kids being downtown on skateboards, but now kids are hanging together and breaking windows, defacing street signs, involved in assaults. That’s the kind of thing that seems to be on the increase.’’
The suburban gang problem has been of concern in communities all across the state in recent years, said Mark K. Leahy, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. No longer are they groups of disorganized wannabes being a nuisance, but rather organized groups of middle- and high school-aged boys and girls being enticed into a more aggressive and violent lifestyle mainly by young adults in their late teens and 20s.
And while some of the groups are formed by natives of the community, others are formed by transplants from dense cities, like Lynn, Lowell, and Lawrence, who may see an opportunity in the unclaimed territory that is suburbia, Leahy said.
“I’ve had outreach all the way into the Berkshires, out into Pittsfield, which is not a small town by any means, but it’s kind of isolated, and they’re wrestling with the problem as well,’’ Leahy said. “There are many communities that have been immune to this in the past that are now affected. . . . I think it’s difficult for suburban police departments and rural police departments for a number of reasons - they lack the assets to have investigators full time to look into these things, they may very well be unfamiliar with various graffiti tags marking turf, and an increase in drug trafficking in their communities or drug sales.’’
But once they spot the problem, suburban and rural police departments “do a much better job with networking with their neighbors right away,’’ he said. “There was a time when the preferred course of action would be to sweep it under the rug because, ‘it’s bad and we don’t have bad here,’ but I think we’ve gotten away from that. . . . Police sharing information will be the worst enemy of these gangs.’’
Amesbury, Newburyport, and Salisbury police began sharing information when they realized late last summer that the gangs had spread into their communities, said Newburyport police City Marshal Thomas H. Howard. After the June stabbing, the three communities revved up surveillance and other proactive measures, such as monitoring the Facebook pages of many of the gang members, which the youngsters use for everything from posting pictures of themselves with stolen goods to organizing fights, he said.
The Newburyport City Council approved $10,000 for its Police Department to fund additional patrols and surveillance downtown, as well as $16,000 for the purchase of a new surveillance camera for Inn Street, said Andrew P. Flanagan, the city’s director of policy and administration. The departments also applied jointly for a $100,000 federal grant designated for drug and anti-gang efforts, in the hopes that, by showing they’re dealing with the issue regionally, they’ll have a better chance at the money.
“We don’t really have the money to do what we have to do,’’ Merrill said. “We’re going to be competing against larger urban areas [for this grant]. Most of the money goes to the larger [police] departments because they have the statistics to back it up.’’
Donovan said the recent regional anti-gang efforts have already paid off, with each community seeing a decrease in downtown vandalism and violence. But that doesn’t mean the problem has disappeared.
“The stuff we have now is not a transient issue. [Gang members] are residents of these three communities,’’ he said. “This is being addressed in the very, very early stages. . . . We’re going to step up officers’ training in the area, and keep up the outreach in the schools.’’
Katheleen Conti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.