wayne_rawlins_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

MIAMI — Miami-Dade County has 230 documented gangs with 1,700 members, and that number could be as high as 5,000, the county’s top cop told a meeting called by a Miami-Dade Commissioner.

The activities of the gangs are so pervasive that they form a culture of their own in which putting guns in people’s faces and shooting up neighborhoods as part of hostile drug turf takeovers are seen as OK, a police gang specialist said.

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Jordan convened the meeting on Sept. 8 at County Hall, the Stephen P. Clarke Center, 111 NW First St., in downtown Miami. She said some communities were under siege from gangs.

“We all recognize that we have a common problem and need to have a meeting in order to address it,” Jordan said.  “We want to see what we can do as elected officials, see how we can approach the problem of violence on our communities.”

“We have to try and make sure that we are getting the communities educated about what’s going on. We’ve got to work with them,”  Jordan said.

Miami Police Lieutenant JM Rodriguez, a member of the force’s Gang Unit, talked about the “culture” of gangs and Miami-Dade police director James Loftus provided the numbers.

Wayne Rawlings, lead consultant with the Miami-Dade Anti-Gang Strategy, said gang activity also includes identity theft and control of drug “holes.”

“Although we are starting to see a rise of juvenile gang activity, the drug trade is still the dominant activity and there is a rise in control over turf,” he said.

Attendees offered varying reasons why gangs exist.

The gang problem is a fight for empowerment, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jean Monestime said. Gang members, he said, are empowered by their guns and their ability to manipulate the community.

“If we as a government address the issue of self-sufficiency, self-empowerment, that would give some type of alternative to those who are not currently involved in these activities and probably prevent them from becoming the next victims,” said Monestime.

According to Rawlings, a major contributor to the rise in the number of gangs is academic failure. “It is definitely one of the risk factors for future criminal activity.  This is troubling, a concern that has become normal within our communities,” he said.

Many children are born into gangs, Rawlings said in an interview after the meeting. Their parents are gang members and they just “grandfathered” into it. “In Miami-Dade County, there are grandparents that are 25 to 26 years old,” he said.

For Morris Copeland, director of the Juvenile Services Department, the reasons behind violent behavior are “complex issues.”

“There is one thing that we noticed about the children that come in who commit these heinous crimes of murder, indiscriminate shootings in the community: The fathers are in prison or not there, the mothers are on some form of assistance, barely making it,” Copeland said.

The children, Copeland continued, look to the older gang members in the community for guidance.  “These are people they want to be, the people that take care of them,” he said.

The individuals who commit heinous crimes as adults began getting into trouble before age 12, Copeland said.

Amy Carswell, Community Relations Board program officer, said some kids who run afoul of the law can be saved,. “There is a difference in a kid that goes into a store and steals a bicycle and a person that shoots you. We need to get our kids before that quantum leap occurs.”

Loftus agreed that there was need to keep children out of gangs. “Get them on the front end and, maybe, when you see things are starting to go wrong, you can bring them back to you,” he said. “Because, when they are murdering people, shooting, and not caring that kids are in the backdrop, my position is that they need to go to jail — and fast.”

But, said Copeland, when the gang members are released from jail, they return to the same communities. “They will be the heroes to their children, for the other children in the community and their siblings. It’s a process that continues,” he said. “So we’re not getting rid of gangs. You take one out, another will replace it. [The gang members] have to be retooled.”

Rodriguez called for “a stricter uniform policy in schools, all the way through the high school level.”

“The significance that some of these colors have with some of these gangs …  it’s a like a declaration of war right then and there,” he said.

Cynthia Roby may be reached at CynthiaRoby@bellsouth.net

Photo: Wayne Rawlins