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Ask Anything: 10 questions with Raleigh police Capt. Andy Nichol, gang & robbery units

Capt. Andy Nichol, with the Raleigh Police Department's gang and robbery units, answers your questions about gang symbols, keeping kids safe and much more.

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Raleigh police Capt. Andy Nichol
What is our active gang rate compared to that of larger cities around the nation? – Elizabeth Carter, Linden

Elizabeth, the Raleigh Police Department regularly responds to questionnaires and survey requests submitted to us by federal and state agencies that collect this type of data. However, once these reports are published, information is frequently consolidated by regions of the country or counties within the state.

This makes it difficult for us to accurately compare our statistics against those of other larger U.S. cities. I can tell you that from speaking with my counter parts from across the country our gang issues are not as severe as those of other major cities.

The Raleigh Police Department has taken a broad-based approach to gang interdiction activities and has specialized units tasked with identifying, and tracking gang members in Raleigh.

To date, we have identified over 50 gangs of varying sizes operating within our jurisdiction and have validated nearly 3,500 gang members. Clearly, there is a significant gang presence in this area.

If you would like more information on recently published gang reports, I would recommend you view “A Comprehensive Assessment of Gangs in North Carolina: A Report to the General Assembly” at www.ncgccd.org/pubs/gangs2008.pdf or the National Youth Gang Survey at www.iir.com/nygc/nygsa.
Violent crimes involving home invasions and gang activity seems to be on the rise. Other than Neighborhood Watch, what is being done to deter such crimes? – William Fisher, Raleigh

William, home invasion robberies account for nine percent of the reported robberies committed within Raleigh. As I write this, there have been 36 reported home invasion robberies since the first of the year, a 20 percent increase over the 30 reported offenses during the same time period in 2008.

Part of my job is to read each robbery report that Raleigh officers take. Based upon my knowledge of home invasion incidents, I can tell you that very few of the victims are selected at random. I can also tell you that many of these crimes are related to drug activity.

In order to address gang activity and an increase in robberies during recent years, the Raleigh Police Department has partnered with both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Wake County District Attorney’s Office in seeking swift adjudication of those charged with such offenses.

Since February of 2006, a total of 137 suspects have had their cases adopted and reviewed by federal prosecutors. These suspects, many of whom are gang members, have been indicted on serious weapons, narcotics and robbery offenses. The successful prosecution of these offenders has earned them an average incarceration sentence of 125 months.

During 2008, this involved 29 suspects and encompassed 72 robbery cases in the Raleigh area. In addition, the Wake County District Attorney’s office recently implemented a dangerous offender task force focused upon prosecuting our area’s most violent offenders.

In December, Police Chief Harry Dolan launched a community-oriented policing initiative piloted in Southeast Raleigh. This initiative is focused upon improving the quality-of-life in neighborhoods by deploying full-time community officers who work in partnership with residents and businesses to develop police services to specifically address the needs of the community and improve safety. Chief Dolan plans to expand this initiative throughout the city.

The help of residents is vitally important to our efforts, and we always strongly urge people to call us if they see anything suspicious. Trust your instincts – if something or someone doesn’t look right to you call 911 and an officer will be dispatched to check the situation.

Is an angry clown tattooed on the neck a gang symbol? What about tattooed tears at eyes? – Annette Dorman, Wendell

Annette, the tattoos described may or may not be gang related. Law enforcement officers encounter a multitude of people throughout their career many of whom have unique ways of expressing their individuality.

In determining whether or not a tattoo may be gang related, we look for other indications of gang involvement, such as a person’s manner of dress, the color of his or her clothing, other observed tattoos, what drew our attention to the individual, associates of the individual and the use of gang signs or terminology.

Usually, we just start by asking a person what a particular tattoo symbolizes and its meaning. More often than not, gang members are eager to discuss their tattoos with us. The angry clown tattoo you are referring to is often accompanied by another happy clown tattoo in gang culture, and together they are commonly referred to as “laugh now, cry later.” Such clown tattoos are commonly displayed by a particular gang, while the tear drop tattoo is utilized by many different gangs.

I often refer people to a Web site “Know Gangs” at www.knowgangs.com in order for them to obtain a basic understanding of gang culture.
There is graffiti all over our town. How do you know which gang(s) posted it? – JEM, Angier

This is a question we receive quite often. Graffiti is often difficult to interpret; even seasoned officers experience difficulty distinguishing between gang graffiti and tagger graffiti. Gang graffiti is used to mark territory or to intimidate other gangs or a community while tagger graffiti is used for self promotion. Taggers tend to use a wide array of bright colors creating an often indistinguishable “artistic” creation.

In Raleigh, gang graffiti cases are assigned to our gang suppression unit for investigative follow-up. The color of paint used is often the first indication of a particular gang’s tag. Also significant are shapes and numbers. For example, the number of tips or points on a star can help us identify which gang is likely to be responsible for it. Letters within the tag may be written backwards, crossed out or upside down. All of these things and more help us in identifying gang graffiti. To learn more about graffiti visit www.graffitihurts.com.

Raleigh has an aggressive graffiti removal program, because one of the most effective ways to deter graffiti is to quickly remove it. The number to call to report graffiti in Raleigh is (919) 996-6001. Other cities and town have similar programs, and can provide information about them.

Many in our area think gangs are only confined to Southeast Raleigh. I say gangs are all over and all ethnicities. Can you clarify? Thank you. – Teresa Bonlak, Raleigh

Teresa, you are correct. However, each city or jurisdiction’s gang problem may be significantly different then the next. The majority of Raleigh’s validated gang members do reside in Southeast Raleigh, yet they commit crimes throughout the city and surrounding areas – and sometimes even elsewhere in the state or beyond. That mobility makes it especially important for law enforcement agencies to communicate with one another, and we are doing that. In North Carolina, the Governor’s Crime Commission has funded a statewide gang intelligence sharing database called GangNet. This database, which is only accessible to law enforcement, allows us to share information on identified gang members and their associates.

I hear a lot in the news about gangs in N.C. Could you tell us what are the major gangs in the area and what trouble spots there may be? – Galen Little, Raleigh

Galen, the Raleigh Police Department does not release specific information on gangs operating within our jurisdiction. We believe that identifying these gangs only increases their notoriety and leads towards increased violence. Unfortunately, gang members often participate in the same activities as the rest of us. They go shopping, go to movies, restaurants, theatres, gas stations, sporting events and other places that attract people. When going out, it is always a good idea to always be aware of your surroundings and exercise good judgment if you feel uncomfortable in any setting. As I mentioned during my response to a previous question, don’t hesitate to notify the police or a security officer of anything suspicious you see.

How can we honestly protect our kids from high school gangs when there is so much random violence associated with them? – Sherry, Fuquay-Varina

Sherry, this is a concern for many of us with school-age children. We realize that keeping children actively involved in the community and in school is one of the greatest deterrents we have in keeping them out of gangs. And we realize that schools face many challenges in balancing the educational needs of at-risk youth with the safety of all students attending public schools. The Wake County School System has a policy prohibiting any act that furthers gangs or gang related activities.

The Raleigh Police Department school resource officers work closely with school administrators in high schools within the city, providing the safest learning environment possible for our children. Other law enforcement agencies provide officers who work in schools, too.

The Raleigh Police Department recently obtained funding for all Wake County school resource officers to attend a week long class on gang identification and awareness to help keep their training up to date. As you know, youth culture changes continually, so it’s especially important for the officers who work in the schools to remain current on trends and issues.

Where can the public find information on gang activity in our area? I know Raleigh has a crime map online, but it only includes areas within Raleigh city limits, and a lot of times it is "not available." Is there anywhere you can find information for Cary/Holly Springs/Apex area? – Jennifer P., Cary

Jennifer, I’ll have to refer you to jurisdictions in those areas for a specific answer to your question. Publicly available crime mapping is spreading and improving, and it’s a valuable tool.

The City of Raleigh is currently working on a revised site that will include an updated interface, and it should be available before long. Each law enforcement jurisdiction is responsible for taking reports within its area, and those reports form the basis for mapping.

The Raleigh Police Department strives to provide the public with the latest crime data available. The vast majority of crime committed in Raleigh is not gang motivated, in other words, it is not in furtherance of the gang itself. Although gang members do commit a disproportionate amount of crime, these crimes are committed for their individual gain or benefit and not that of the gang as a unit.

Many of these offenses are committed by a single perpetrator and are referred to as gang involved or related. In reviewing crime data, investigators focus on crime patterns rather than the suspect’s gang affiliation unless the offense is gang motivated. If the crime is determined to be gang motivated, all available resources are brought to bear against the responsible gang or gangs to minimize the potential for increased violence.

I read in the Durham Report on Gangs that a great way to prevent gang activity was to report graffiti immediately. I added the City of Raleigh graffiti hotline to my cell and have called it several times this year to report graffiti. Do you have any other tips that the average person could implement? – Alice, Raleigh
Dr. Deborah Weisel and Dr. Buddy Howell did an excellent job on the 2007 Durham Gang Assessment, and we thank you for reporting graffiti. I would like to take this opportunity to remind you and other callers to update the City of Raleigh’s graffiti hotline phone number to (919) 996-6001. The number was recently changed when the city switched to a voice-over-Internet protocol telephone system.

The city’s graffiti removal crew does an excellent job of getting rid of graffiti, usually within 24 hours of receiving the initial report. That serves as a deterrent, because gangs are less likely to post graffiti when they know it won’t be allowed to stay.

Other responses that you may want to consider in your gang prevention efforts include getting involved with your community and neighborhood anti-crime efforts and calling 911 to report crimes and suspicious activity. If you wish to report non-emergency information pertaining to gang activity to the Raleigh Police Department please contact our gang intelligence unit at (919) 996-GANG.

For youth who are caught in acts of robbery/burglary, what programs are in place to reduce their chances of returning to those crimes? Recently, my home was burglarized and two young males in the neighborhood were arrested, but several months later they were caught for the same exact crimes. It would seem as if whatever punishment or sentencing they received had little success. If the programs are not working, what community action needs to be taken? – Sam, Raleigh

Sam, I understand your concern. A recent analytical review conducted by the Raleigh Police Department indicated that 38 percent of our robbery arrests involved youth between the ages of 16 and 20. When we increase the age to 25 the percentage jumps to 60. Gang members were responsible for nearly a third of the robbery cases cleared by arrests. Firearms were utilized during 58 percent of all robberies committed, and that is one of the reasons robbery is such a dangerous crime.

We often refer to the Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 rule) when addressing criminal behavior. Eighty percent of crime tends to be committed by 20 percent of the criminals. That is one of the reasons our partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Wake County District Attorney’s Office is so vital in fast tracking the trials of dangerous offenders and obtaining the maximum allowable sentence if they are convicted. Due to the escalation of violence associated with repeat robbery offenders and gang members, their incarceration provides the best way of ensuring public safety.

The Raleigh Police Department and other agencies are particularly concerned about observed increases in the number of first time offenders whose first ever charge is robbery. The problem is not one that we will correct by arrests alone, and that’s why we strongly support youth mentoring initiatives. It is important to find ways to reach out to and connect with young people before they take a wrong turn, and this is an area in which the community needs to be more involved. For mentoring opportunities within Wake County please view the Wake County Gang Prevention Partnerships website at www.wakegov.com/humanservices/partnerships/gangprevention.
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