ATLANTA — Gang violence is up throughout the Southeast and pockets of Georgia seem to be the epicenter.
Violent crime in general has seen an uptick throughout the region in recent years and law enforcement agencies have attributed much of it to gang activity. While metro areas continue to see large volumes of gang activity, the issue is also affecting rural areas throughout various states.
Areas like the central Georgia, in the Milledgeville corridor, and southwest Georgia, the Albany area, are just some of the pockets of Georgia that are starting to see more and more gang-related crimes, according GBI Director Vic Reynolds, who oversees Georgia Bureau of Investigation's two-year-old Gang Task Force.
Gang activity growing in rural areas
"It's not just in city environments. It's in rural areas as well. I've had sheriffs in deep southwest Georgia needing assistance...Valdosta...Coffee County," Reynolds explained, noting that the driving force behind most gangs is to make money, typically by way of robbery, and drug, human and labor trafficking. "I don't know a generalized area in Georgia that we haven't seen any form of gang activity."
According to GBI data, during FY 2020, the GBI, through either the gang task force or regional offices, was involved in 343 gang related or gang motivated investigations, and 541 gang related or gang motivated investigations in FY 2021, which ended June 30. The investigations involved close to 70 separate criminal street gangs, including the Gangster Disciples, Bloods, Crips, Ghostface Gangsters, Aryan Brotherhood and MS-13, according to the GBI.
Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk in south Georgia said gang activity became a real issue the county during the late 90s and has seen an increase in involvements with murder, robberies and thefts in recent years.
"Most all of the shootings and homicides and major crimes we have are gang related and drug related at the same time," Paulk said. “In our jail where we have roughly 650 inmates, we have to be very cognizant of the fact that we have the gangs, and we have to segregate them or otherwise we would have more problems in our jail."
Much of the county's gang activity has involved younger persons, with a recent gang-related homicide in Valdosta involving four teenagers, Paulk said.
"You‘ve got so many households now where there’s not a father figure," Paulk said. "Gang members are pretty cunning and will start grooming a gang member at 12 or 13 years old and try to be someone they look up to as tough or people are scared of him."
Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office Major Brad King said the Milledgeville, Georgia area has seen much of its violent crime include gang-related drive-by shootings over the last four years, in addition to other gun and narcotics crimes.
King said the department, like others, is in a "personnel crisis," which has made tackling the gang issue more difficult.
"Whatever resources are put toward it, it's not going to be enough, this is a significant problem and needs its due attention and unfortunately its going to be astronomical," he said. "It's all about personnel. If you embed enough personnel with the local agencies, absolutely positively the more success they will have. This is about boots on the ground because this is a very fluid problem...Gang members move, they go to different neighborhoods."
According to a recent survey conducted by Georgia Gang Investigators Association, 157 of 159 counties reported a rise in gang activity and 155 of 159 school districts reported suspected gang activity; The group reports, on average, that 60% of all violent crimes committed in Georgia are gang motivated.
Reynolds said the Gang Task Force, though still in its early stages, aims to be a supplement to local agencies and trained gang specialists are available in each of GBI's 15 districts statewide to assist local agencies.
"We're a requesting, assisting agency. We can't get involved unless someone asks us to, even on gang issues," Reynolds said. "We're only as successful as our partnerships where the local agencies are. Our job is to basically come in and be a force multiplier to the locals. We're seeing that start to work in Atlanta north and we're going to push that to the entire state.
"We focused first on Atlanta north just because of logistics, it was the best place to start...up to Hall, Pickens and Cherokee County, and we had some good success in the first year," Reynolds continued. "Then we really started growing the task force and we expanded it down to central Georgia area, the Macon and Milledgeville corridor, where we really have a lot of concern about gangs in that area."
Task force cracking down
Reynolds touted some of the task force's more large-scaled success stories, including 14 members of Nine Trey Bloods in Cherokee County being indicted this month for labor trafficking. The gang allegedly used a fraudulent charity to operate a labor-intensive human trafficking ring.
"It is a case we were very proud of. It not only incorporated aspects of the criminal street gang, but also our new trafficking unit, HEAT (Human Exploitation and Trafficking)...We're finding more and more cases where the gang aspect meshes over into the human trafficking aspect," Reynolds said.
The gang task force also assisted in a 60-person indictment case in north Georgia and a nearly 10-person indictment in Albany for trafficking a teen female.
Larger scale gang cases, Reynolds said, is the primary focus of the task force.
"You don't get the gang by getting the guy. You get the guy by getting the gang," he said. "We don't necessarily focus on working a case against a person, because we're working cases against an organized street gang and that's the only way to take these gangs down."
Database to track activity
A major part in the tasks force's role in assisting in more local gang cases and investigations will include the complete rollout of a statewide gang database, which Reynolds said was approved by the state legislature in 2010, but never launched.
"We need to do it to provide some assistance to the particularly smaller departments around the state where if someone in Valdosta is working a case and they believe it's connected to a case in Columbus or Rome or Atlanta, they have the ability to go online and figure that out," he said.
The first phase of the database rollout began in late 2019 through early 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic halted the program's move to phase 2. Phase 1 allows agencies to view information, but not input their own local information about gang members in their area into the database, which is the plan for phase 2. A few agencies, like Lowndes County, have already been part of phase two.
“I think it’s just another tool and does create another database statewide the people can go to, in addition to other alliances. It certainly is an asset to everybody,” Paulk said.
Reynolds said the full database access is expected to be available to Georgia law enforcement agencies in early 2022.
"We're hoping that once we roll out phase 2, beginning in October, and have it pushed out the entire state sometime after January, that we'll see our local partners begin inputting their gang info as well, and the database will really grow," he said. "I think it's going to help local, particularly smaller, departments tremendously around the state. I wish we could've pushed it out earlier, but COVID got in the way of that."
Reynolds said he hopes to grow the gang task force to become more region focused, with a task force in northern and southern Georgia.
With more than four months remaining in 2021, the city of Atlanta had already surpassed the 88 murders reported in 2020; Reynolds said many of the city's murders and violent crimes have been attributed to gang involvement.
Gangs plague Black communities in Mississippi
Similarly, Mississippi's capital, Jackson, has seen some of the state's largest increase in violent crimes this year due to gang activity this year, according to Jimmy Anthony of Mississippi Association of Gang Investigators, who said shootings around the state have increased drastically since the onset of the COVID pandemic.
"We've had a tremendous increase in shootings...Auto burglaries and residential burglaries have increased and a lot of these have been organized by our street gangs, especially as the auto and home burglaries are being used as initiations," said Anthony, noting that a Mississippi statute classifies a crime as gang-related if the victim or suspect is a gang member.
"Violent crimes have been outrageous. Just in the small community [of Panola County in north Mississippi], we've had three homicides in the last two weeks and normally we wouldn't have three a year...I can attest to that the ones we've had here locally have been gang related and most of the ones in Jackson have been," Anthony continued.
Much of the gang violence stems from money and guns, he said, and have largely affected Black communities, which make up 38% of the state's population.
"Most of our violent crimes are being committed, I would say, by those between the ages of 16-24 and unfortunately it's been plaguing our African American communities, much of which are affiliated with national gangs," Anthony said.
One aid to the gang issue, he said, is the state prison commissioner's new religion-based culture which aims to convince imprisoned gang members to give up the gang life; however, Anthony said while the program is successful within the prisons, lenient gang prosecution laws have presented a barrier to diminishing street gangs.
"Being in a gang is a choice and you should be held responsible for the choices that you make. If you join a gang and you commit a violent crime, then you need to go to prison. There shouldn't be any leniency, or early releases. To gangs, our laws don't mean anything to them bc they have their own rules and laws they're obligated to follow and their loyalty is to their organizations and not to out communities."
Gang-related murders up in Tennessee
Gang-related murders have also seen an increase in Tennessee, while the state saw a 37% increase in murders in 2020. An estimated 680 murders were reported in 2020, up from nearly 520 murders reported in 2019, according to Tennessee Bureau of Investigations data, which has so far attributed less than 3% to being gang-related. While that percentage is low, it still doubles the percentage from 2019 and does not take into consideration the nearly 330 murder cases in 2020 that have not been cleared.
In July, the state recently had a big crack in a gang and drug-related murder through a 60-count indictment involving nine members of the Thompson Place Locos Salvatrucha clique, a subset of a national gang comprised mostly of Hispanics, on charges related to seven murders and five attempted murders, in addition to robberies, kidnappings and assaults.
Hispanics make up nearly 6% of the state's population. While Black people only make up 17% of Tennessee's population, they accounted for nearly 68% of the state's arrests for murders, according to TBI data. In 2020, of the 365 arrests for murders, 248 of them were Black and 115 were white, which make up 78% percent of the state's population.
TBI attributed the spike to the COVID-19 pandemic, "as workplaces, schools, and other community venues were closed."