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Violent crime down, but police say gangs are growing

James Halpin

Tough policing and prosecution of gang members has largely knocked some outfits onto the ropes, and police statistics show violent crime down as a whole last year.

But the number of gangs and gang members continues to swell in Anchorage. Whether lured north by a slumping Lower 48 economy, efforts to escape trouble down south or just moving with their families, individual gang members have been moving in with increasing frequency over the past two years, according to police.

"We're just having a tremendous growth in gangs right now," said Scott Lofthouse, the police gang intelligence officer. "The violent crime itself has gone down, way down. But what we're finding is that a larger percentage of the violent crime is being done by gang members."

Gang numbers in Anchorage have been consistently rising in recent years. A recent police tally counted more than 125 suspected gangs, 55 of which met the definition of gang set out in state law. That's up from 112 suspected gangs they counted as recently as December.

The recent count documented 354 validated gang members and about 2,400 suspected associates, up from 1,000 total in both groups in the December count.

Part of the reason for the growth is that police are putting more time and effort into identifying gangs, police chief Rob Heun said. Several officers are devoted to gathering intelligence on gangs, and cops in the schools, besides improving security, also help police learn from kids what the word is on the streets, he said.

"Our intelligence is getting much better," Heun said. "That's why you'll see enhancements in the numbers of validated gang members or gang suspects. We've developed a very good information-gathering system."

ECONOMY SENDS PEOPLE NORTH

The weak economy has prompted a lot of people from the Lower 48 to head this way in the past 18 months to two years, sometimes for jobs, the Permanent Fund check or both, Lofthouse said. Families move up and the children bring their past, sometimes involving gang membership, with them, he said.

Authorities are trying to prevent youths from joining gangs in the first place. There are nearly 20 police officers positioned in city high schools, who work to deter gang activity there, superintendent Carol Comeau said.

"The gang wanna-bes, if you will, and maybe some minor gang players are in our schools, but they are not doing gang-like activities," Comeau said. "As far as our schools are concerned, we've had very few incidents, and in most cases it would be if some kids are wearing colors."

Officials also were starting a new program in June to give kids expelled from school or on long-term suspensions something to do beside wandering the streets, Comeau said. The out-of-school program is held at Nine Star Enterprises and has a school district teacher on hand as well as security provided by McLaughlin Youth Center, she said.

Police say most of the gang violence is with other gangs, though much of it doesn't make headlines. Summertime, when the weather is nice and people are out on the streets, is generally the prime gang season. Weapons offenses, shootings that don't injure anyone and instances of gang posturing -- showing off their weapons to threaten rivals -- are still going on, Lofthouse said.

Back in May, a group calling itself the 51-50 Crips was causing trouble at the downtown transit center, said Sgt. Darrel Redick, supervisor of the Special Assignment Unit, whose SWAT team members specialize in taking down potentially dangerous targets and focus on going after gangs.

"Officers were responding to the problems and when they were taking action, they were getting their buddies and all of a sudden the officers were getting surrounded," Redick said. "So it started to get a little out of hand and then comments were made about hurting officers."

The SAU was called in and zeroed in on a main player, a man with a history of being confrontational with police and who had said he planned to shoot a cop, Redick said. The team swooped in on him and seized a gun that had been modified to fire fully automatic, and things have been mostly quiet at the transit center since.

"Fortunately, sometimes when some of these issues arise, we get up and we pick a couple people off and it seems to shut it down for a bit," Redick said.

Another episode that got a lot of media attention -- the shooting death of a man in the parking lot of the Sports Authority on Old Seward Highway -- doesn't appear to have been the work of gang members, police say.

But a victim in another recent homicide was a gang member. Christon Lee, 19, was one of two men gunned down Feb. 18 in a drug-motivated shooting while he was in a black pickup idling on Russian Jack Drive. Police say he was also a Rollin 60s Crip from Las Vegas until he moved up here. He showed up and joined the 51-50 Crips, according to police.

"They don't necessarily maintain the alliance with their out-of -state gang, although some of them may," Lofthouse said. "Sometimes what they'll do is they'll assimilate into a local gang up here that has the same affiliations."

Then there was a recent series of assaults in Mountain View. The Low-Down Crips demanded money of someone passing through and told the victim not to come back, Redick said. The person returned and got attacked, he said.

"We've seen people marking their turf, so to speak, but I hadn't really seen the ownership of, 'Hey, this is our block and you're not allowed here,' " Redick said.

Following that episode, the SAU moved in to show a presence, made some arrests and quashed the problem, he said.

AGENCIES WORK TOGETHER

Police in recent years have been working with federal authorities to take down gangs, and officials say it's working. There are two municipal prosecutors working as assistant U.S. attorneys, and since starting in February 2007, they have indicted 80 defendants, netting 61 convictions for sentences totaling 379 years, U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler said.

The anti-gang effort targets drug and weapons offenders who pose a threat to the community, she said.

"In terms of crack and guns, there is more time in federal court than there is in state court," Loeffler said. "But on the other hand, you also are not trying to take everybody off and make every case federal. It really is targeting people that you want to get out of the community so that those that are on the sort of fence don't have these guys to follow."

One recent example of the offenders the project targets is Damonta Ronnell Moore, 22, who on May 19 was sentenced to 10 years in prison for possessing crack cocaine with the intent to distribute.

The SAU was looking to arrest Moore on several warrants in Mountain View last August when they spotted him with a white grocery bag. He ran and tossed the bag, but police caught him and found the bag, which contained nearly 160 grams of crack.

Tattooed on Moore's forearms were the words "Soulja Crew," the name of a street gang.

"Soulja Crew was a big name here in town for a while," Redick said. "You don't see much of that anymore. You don't see a lot of them running around with their cammies on. A lot of them are still in prison."

Police say fighting gangs is a multi-front war being waged on the streets, in classrooms and in homes. And it is a continuing battle that may never be won.

"We have to be vigilant," Heun said. "We're not going to declare victory by any stretch of the imagination. It's going to be an ongoing problem because it's become such an ingrained part of our culture."

Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.


By JAMES HALPIN
jhalpin@adn.com