“America’s Greatest Little City” isn’t immune to gang violence.
The shooting of seven people on June 2 at Calumet Park in LaGrange – which police say is gang-related – has many questioning just how serious the issue is in the area.
For LaGrange police, it’s serious enough that they have a presentation ready for school and community groups who want to hear it on how to spot suspected gang activity on the streets and signs to look for in children.
“That’s the main message we want to get out,” said Lou Dekmar, LaGrange’s chief of public safety. “People need to remain vigilant.”
Residents should avoid confrontation, ask questions about their children’s activity and don’t be afraid to report anything suspicious, police say.
The block party at Calumet Park didn’t start out as anything suspicious, investigators said. The event apparently is one that happens at least annually, where the community comes together and cooks hamburgers and hot dogs for local children. There was even a bounce house at the park that day – all legal. No special permits were required by Troup County Parks and Recreation, county manager Tod Tentler said.
“That sort of event is what the park is for,” LaGrange City Manager Tom Hall said.
But eventually, the children went home and the adults stayed. Alcohol came out. One party-goer recognized another as being from a rival gang. And the thing police most want to keep from happening did – seven people got caught in the crossfire.
According to LaGrange police, there are 1,100 criminal street gangs reported in 55 counties across Georgia, including Troup. Historically, lawmen say, LaGrange has been affiliated with the “Blood” nation out of Atlanta.
Recently though, the “Folk” nation out of Atlanta and Chicago also has been identified in LaGrange.
“We now have a power struggle here,” said LaGrange police investigator Ray Ham.
Police say there have been numerous incidents of “Folk” nation graffiti tagging, along with the prosecution of Folk Nation Insane Gangster Disciples in 2011.
Five gang members in LaGrange received 10 years’ probation for a series of burglaries and car break-ins. Joseph Christopher Thomas, 19, Anthony Ray Hunt, 18, Hunter Austin Wood, 17, Joseph Ryan Seymour, 19, and Demario Deanete Phillips, 19, pleaded guilty to violation of the Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act, as well as various counts of burglary and entering an auto.
Members of the Black P Stone gang also were successfully prosecuted here in 2010.
LaGrange research shows gang activity also is present in Hogansville and West Point, although police from those cities say there have been no major incidents.
West Point Police Chief Jeffrey Cato said his city has seen some activity from a loose affiliation of “The Lot Boyz.”
“To a degree, they are wanna-bes,” he said.
Cato said when he first arrived in West Point, he saw a lot of tagging by suspected gang members.
“We don’t see that a lot anymore,” he said. “The police are enforcing the laws and breaking up gatherings. Word is getting out that it won’t be tolerated in our city.”
West Point police and lawmen from other jurisdictions responded to a fight about a year ago at the West Point Housing Authority that involved some 300 people, but Cato says he doesn’t believe it was gang-related.
“Most of the people who were fighting that night were women,” he said. “It looks like they were just fighting over territory.”
Hogansville police and the Troup County Sheriff also report little, if any, gang activity.
“It’s mainly graffiti,” said Hogansville police Sgt. Richard Wolfe. “We’ve identified a few teenager wanna-bes, but nothing hardcore.”
Troup sheriff’s investigator Rodney Williams also says there have been few incidents, even in the Correctional Institute.
“A lot of people want to say we don’t have gang activity but we do,” Williams said. “A lot of (the members) live in the county and come to the city to commit crimes.”
In recent years, local law enforcement agencies have come together to work on the gang issue, which all agree isn’t going away.
“It’s not out of hand now, but it could get that way,” Cato said. “We need to nip it in the bud now. I really don’t think it’s a large problem yet, but it could get that way.”
Cato, Ham and Dekmar all praise the state statute that defines a criminal gang for its broad definitions. Any group of three or more involved in criminal activity could be in a gang, according to state law, and the statute even applies to hate groups, cults and outlaw motorcycle gangs. To prove a case under the gang statute, prosecutors must prove existence of a gang, that the alleged criminals are members and that the crime was in support of gang activity.
Ham said that often requires two investigations by police officers – one on the crime itself and one to find any associated gang activity.
Gang members around LaGrange may display the signs, symbols and activities of and identify with the larger, nationally known gangs, but police here say no one has been directly tied to the Bloods or Folk nation.
“They just imitate (the larger gangs),” Ham said. “We call this the juvenile factor. This isn’t organized gang activity. It’s just happenstance.”
Along with the LPD’s education program on gangs – which it has taken to schools, community groups and even U.S. Army Corps of Engineers park rangers – police hold gang crime at bay in other ways.
Its graffiti abatement program allows the tagging to be painted over almost as soon as it is discovered, usually with community service workers. Fire codes are strictly enforced at large indoor parties around the city. Police have permission to ban people from the LaGrange Housing Authority and are getting similar rights at other apartment complexes.
And residents who see suspicious activity are encouraged to come forward, like those who identified the shooters in the June 2 incident.
“We’re all in this together,” Cato said. “We need the communities’ help and support.”