Sunday, April 10, 2005
Police ward off groups, gangs or not
The group called NRTS is not well known by name, but some say the initials stand for "North Roanoke Terror Squad."
When Roanoke Police Chief Joe Gaskins told the city council last week about the ganglike activity of a Roanoke group, it was the first time in his seven years as chief that he has made such a comparison.
The next day, a police department news release described the group, which calls itself NRTS, as one "whose criminal activity comes closest to resembling gang-related activity."
Police say residents should not worry. But they declined to elaborate on what the acronym stands for, what criminal activity the group is accused of, where it allegedly operates, and which of its characteristics resemble those of a gang. Police said such revelations could jeopardize their investigation.
Some officials and residents say Gaskins' comment proves he is finally admitting that Roanoke has gangs, but others disagree, saying the city is lucky that its cliques of thugs lack the organization of real gangs, and police are actively warding off the behavior, however quietly.
"You have to have faith in the locality that if they say, 'We're handling situations as they come up,' they are," said Virginia Gang Investigators Association member Ike Anderson. "From the outside, it may not look like it's working, but that is an outside perspective."
Anderson is also a youth detective with the Roanoke Police Department, but he granted an interview Friday only in his capacity with the Virginia Gang Investigators Association and declined to specifically discuss Roanoke or NRTS.
With Gaskins declining The Roanoke Times' interview requests last week, the only perspective available on NRTS was from outside the police department. Of more than 20 officials, community leaders and citizens interviewed, few had heard of the group.
Those who had heard of it suggested more than one possible meaning of NRTS, including "North Roanoke Terror Squad."
"I've heard some rumblings from the kids about, I guess, a heightened level in like the Lincoln Terrace area," said Damon Jiggetts, who works in the gang prevention program at Boys and Girls Club of the Roanoke Valley. "It's nothing of a criminal nature, but just going out and promoting themselves."
Keith Farmer, director of the Straight Street ministry youth program and a member of former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore's Anti-Gang Task Force, has also heard of NRTS from kids. He said the simple fact that there are different ideas of what it stands for shows it is not well-organized.
"It's not anything as well-defined like you would see in Northern Virginia or the Virginia Beach area," he said. "It's not anything like a national movement."
Farmer said he thinks NRTS is just a "neighborhood clique," like the LTP and VH1 groups. Some residents and community leaders say LTP and VH1 are gangs that operate at the Lincoln Terrace and Villa Heights housing developments, but Roanoke police have maintained they are just loosely organized groups.
Members of a half-dozen community groups who were contacted had never heard of NRTS.
"I can't say that I have," said Norma Smith, a member of the Hurt Park Neighborhood Alliance. "I've lived in this Hurt Park neighborhood all my life."
Roanoke Commonwealth's Attorney Donald Caldwell said he had never heard the acronym, as did Kevin Foust, supervisory senior resident agent of the FBI in Roanoke, and Daniel Hale, president of the Roanoke branch of the NAACP.
"Yesterday was the first time I've heard of it," Hale said. "I know nothing about it, and none of my people in the executive committee have heard anything about it."
Jiggetts and Farmer said they would not call NRTS a gang, because they don't believe it has the hierarchy necessary to classify as such.
But others, such as Southern Christian Leadership Conference board chairman Jeff Artis, think Roanoke has groups that could be classified as gangs under the Code of Virginia. Artis has insisted for years that Roanoke has a gang problem.
"Gaskins' attitude is if we admit we have gangs, it gives them all this power," Artis said. "They already have power."
Under state code section 18.2-46.1, a "criminal street gang" is a group of three or more people who commit crimes as a primary objective, have an identifiable name or symbol and have at least conspired or attempted to commit two or more criminal acts, at least one of which is violent.
According to the Virginia Gang Investigators Association's gang threat assessment of March 2002, many jurisdictions have "homegrown," or neighborhood, gangs.
"They refer to them by specific names that reflect the area that they either live in or hang out in, but some areas refuse to call them gangs. By definition in Virginia, they are," the assessment states.
Former Attorney General Kilgore, who is a Republican candidate for governor, started the state anti-gang task force, which helped create new gang legislation in 2004. He believes it is inaccurate to say that Roanoke doesn't have real gangs.
"No, I believe you do have them in Roanoke," he said. "All you have to do is look at what the children of the Roanoke area are saying."
Kilgore was referring to a 2004 Boys and Girls Club survey in which 50 percent of the Roanoke children, parents and staff surveyed said they knew gang members. In that survey, subjects mentioned LTP and VH1, which Kilgore calls homegrown gangs.
"It's not a chamber of commerce issue to talk about, but you've certainly got to be able to admit it to battle it," he said.
Kilgore said many localities in Virginia, including Bedford, have benefited from state and federal funding to fight gangs, but Roanoke has not. He said a locality must admit it has a problem before it can get funding.
Anderson said homegrown gangs are spreading in Southwest Virginia, but "this region is very fortunate that almost all, or every locality in Southwest Virginia, has taken steps of some sort to suppress that type of behavior."
He said publicity about gangs only serves to encourage them.
Roanoke police have pointed out that in 2000 they created a gang task force that allows school resource officers, patrol officers and detectives to address gang-related issues. The department also has an accomplished Street Crimes Unit that focuses on drug hot spots and other high-crime areas.
"As long as you know what that is and you are taking action to do something, I think that is a good thing," Anderson said of localities in general. "It's sitting back and just hoping it will go away, that's what the problem is."
Kilgore says forming a task force is admirable, but localities across Virginia must participate in the statewide gang identification program so everyone can learn together.
"Gangs," he said, "do not recognize jurisdictional boundaries."