Red, white and blue are patriotic colors, symbolizing America. Red, white and blue are also gang colors symbolizing the Bloods, 18th Street and the Crips, respectively.
According to the Florida Gang Reduction Strategy 2011 Annual Report, there are 164 documented gangs in Northwest Florida, and 1,637 identified gangs in Florida.
Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said he has identified at least 17 different gangs in his county, and while the number of gangs has remained flat, membership is growing.
“The community is unaware of the depth and breadth of gang activity,” said Morgan. “We didn’t have any when I took office (in 2008) according to local folks, but in reality they (gangs) are here.”
According to the 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment report, there are two-four gang members per 1,000 people, and two-four gang members per law enforcement officer in Florida. The assessment also reported that gang members are responsible for an average of 48 percent of violent crimes; in Florida gang members are responsible for an average of 90 percent of violent crimes.
The Escambia County Gang Unit works to identify the type of gangs as well as the members that make up the gangs.
The gang unit has identified national gangs establishing a local presence, local hybrid gangs and motorcycle gangs in Escambia County. While the problem is not as acute in Santa Rosa County, there is a presence according to the gang unit.
“These guys live in Santa Rosa County” said one gang unit officer pointing to the photo of about seven 18- to 25-year-olds flashing gangs sign and wearing gang colors.
“It’s important to understand: you don’t wear these colors and flash these gang signs unless you’re in a gang. If you do, they (other gang members) will retaliate,” said Morgan.
Sheriff Wendell Hall chairs the State Gang Reduction Task Force for Region 1 that covers Bay, Calhoun, Escambia, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Walton and Washington counties.
According to the Gang Reduction site, the intent of the task force is to “bring together the many partners in the community who focus on the issues of gang activity and their related consequences,” but Hall said gang activity is not an issue in Santa Rosa County.
“We try to prevent (gangs) and make Santa Rosa County a less than favorable place for them to come and live,” Hall said. “We stay on top of it at high schools. When we get word (about the) possibility some have moved in, we make it a priority to step up patrols in those areas,” said Hall. “We don’t want them here (and) we do everything to make sure they don’t stay here.”
Unlike its neighbor, Santa Rosa does not have a gang unit; however, the county does have one detective assigned to property crimes and gang intelligence.
“It’s been a while since we’ve had anything that we could prove was gang-related,” said the detective. “Okaloosa is inundated with gangs and those people do come over and commit crimes. Some gang members live here, but most activities occur there (Okaloosa and Escambia Counties).”
The I-10 corridor serves as a major route of gang members for northwest Florida, coming from Alabama, Louisiana and further west.
“We’re getting the I-10 corridor drop-off effect,” said Morgan. “It’s the most dangerous highway in the United States.”
Denial and recruitment
For Morgan, it’s an issue few elected officials want to admit exist, with the exception of District 3 Commissioner Lumon May.
“This head in the sand approach is now to the point that it’s in my face,” said Morgan. “It was estimated last year that on any given day, we probably (had) 300 active gang members dealing dope and creating mayhem in Escambia County … You don’t have the level of activity in Santa Rosa County as you do here – yet.”
Morgan also stressed that the recruitment process begins at a young age. The gang members who live in Santa Rosa County in the photo may be adults, but they were about 15 years old when they were recruited, according to the gang unit officer.
“There’s no age cut off,” said Morgan. “The youngest child arrested was 9 (years old) for selling crack cocaine.”
Morgan stressed that gang leaders seek out young recruits because the justice system has a different set of rules for juveniles than for adults, and there is no safe place.
“Crime is a cancer … it will metastasize to the rest of the body if left unattended,” said Morgan. “What I (have) observed going on my fifth year as sheriff is until the problem as it your door step, we deny it as a community.”
Young children see the outward affluence of the gang leaders and want that lifestyle. They are also looking for an identity and looking for a place to belong according to the gang unit officer.
“Some kids are looking for an identity, (and) in my experience, there’s a lack of family involvement,” said the officer.
More than education
Solving the issue is going to take more than education.
“If education was the key, why do people smoke?” said Morgan. “It’s a sound bite and cliché that we as citizens like to hear because it makes (us) feel good.”
When the majority of youth in gangs come from single-parent homes and lack a solid education, it will take the community as a whole combatting the problem.
Morgan added that it’s important for communities through its churches, schools, organizations and citizens to develop community strategies on how best to address the problem.
Representatives Clay Ingram, R-Pensacola, and Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, are striving to help in the fight against gangs and gang-related activity through House Bill 407, Criminal Gang Prevention.
“I met with Hall before the session. He reminded me that Santa Rosa County is the number one per capita murder county in the state,” said Gaetz. “Hall told me he was seeing gang violence in Escambia County start to bleed over into Santa Rosa County and asked me to push legislation that would criminalize the recruitment of potential gang members around schools, and give prosecutors more tools during the sentencing phase to introduce evidence of gang membership. Plus longer prison sentences.”
The bill, if signed into law, would also increase the penalty for trespassing in a school safety zone and make it a second-degree felony for a person to “intentionally cause, encourage, solicit, or recruit another person under the age of 13 to become a criminal gang member.”
The house bill went to the Judiciary Committee on March 20; the Florida Senate companion bill, SB 788, is in the Appropriations Committee as of March 22.
“I applaud the efforts of the representative and senators in getting involved,” said Morgan. “For us facing the issue, it’s another tool in the tool box.”
Likewise, Hall also supports the efforts of Ingram and Gaetz.
“I encourage this legislation and support it, and (am) thankful we have senators and representatives that will take initiative to make it happen,” said Hall.