anville is a city facing many challenges. The economy is primarily based on tobacco and textile manufacturing, both of which are declining and seriously affecting the city and region. Data from the 2000 U.S. Census placed the number of persons in Danville living below the poverty level at 22.4 percent of the population. This is nearly double the average for other similarly populated cities in Virginia. The number of children living below the poverty level is 31 percent. The 2000 Census also showed that 19.2 percent of the city's population is under the age of 14. The latest employment studies show that the unemployment rate has fluctuated between 8 percent and 13 percent, further exacerbating the financial difficulties of the city. During this declining economy, the need for law enforcement services in Danville increased.
Rumors were circulating that youth gangs were developing in Danville. The police department did not have any experience in dealing with gangs and determined to approach this issue with an open mind. Danville felt that the technique of defining the problem, evaluating it, and then devising an approach to solve the problem is not applicable to rumors and speculation. How do you solve the issue of gangs and gang activity if the evidence of this was based on speculation and rumor? No city wants to have a gang problem and no city wants to create a gang issue if one does not exist.
Danville police officers sought to be proactive in addressing the rumors and speculation surrounding he existence of gangs and set out to gather information to determine the extent of any activity. During the initial identification efforts, street officers, school employees, and Parks and Recreation staff compiled information. Interviews determined that there had been observations of graffiti and of adolescents wearing similar clothing (bearing the logo of a sports team), and that these observations gave rise to reports of gang-related activity.
The rumors and speculation about these groups being street gangs were so pervasive that it was decided to create an antigang coalition in the community. The Danville Police Department brought together city and county departments to focus resources and talent on this possible developing problem. This city-county agency group is known as the Danville-Pittsylvania Gang Prevention Coalition. The acronym PAGE (Proactively Addressing Gangs Effectively) clearly describers what was needed to take place in the community to understand and learn about gangs. PAGE is a community effort that addresses the issue of gangs through education and awareness programs by proactively responding with innovative and effective methods and ideas.
Police identified four groups, or cliques, and a number of subjects who denied being a member of the groups or affiliated with a gang. While attempting to identify the members of these groups, police officers interviewed several known associates of the suspected gang members. The associates stressed that they were just members of neighborhood basketball teams and the only rivalry was friendly competition among the teams. One member actually showed the officers where the subjects had purchased the sports team-identifying clothing.
The school official reported that there had been a problem with groups of students wearing identical clothing and some students were wearing clothes that contained initials symbolizing the geographic locations where they lived. This often led many other students to develop an affinity with these groups if they also lived in the same geographic location, resulting in a polarized student body. School resource officers also began noticing that some students were imitating or displaying gang hand signs. While some students would be influenced by hip-hop music and believed this to be just a popular thing to do, others appeared to be using the hand signs to express group affiliation.
School officials immediately educated the students and parents through literature and meetings on what behavior and clothing they would allow in school. While many parents were defensive about their children during these encounters, no parent advocated gang membership for their child. The next step was to take disciplinary action with students who didn't comply with the dress and behavior code. Dress code violations of this nature occurred 10 times in the initial enforcement stage but declined the next year to only one incident. Confrontations and fights between the groups in the most affected high school declined from 12 incidents the first year to four during in the next year. Once the groups were not allowed to congregate and wear clothing deemed inappropriate in school, incidents declined.
The Shopping Mall
The awareness campaign didn't stop in the school system. The local shopping mall was experiencing young people hanging out in large groups on the weekend, dressing alike and creating an atmosphere that was confrontational to some of the regular patrons. Danville purchased five handheld video cameras and assigned officers to the mall to use both the handheld cameras and the marked car cameras to record any activity that was inconsistent with regular business behavior. One of the most telling scenes was a group of young people arriving at the mall and changing into their gang-style clothing in the parking lot. Because the young people were reluctant to dress that way at home, there was chance that the education program would work. Many young people do not have a problem behaving improperly in the mall but would not behave that way on camera if there were a possibility of their parents viewing the tape. The effect of this videotaping strategy was immediate. The mall security staff and businesses noticed an immediate reduction in nonpatrons and disruptive teenagers hanging out.
In addition to the school and mall initiatives, an education presentation on youth gang identifiers was developed and presented to various community groups. Civic, church, and business groups sought the presentation. Building on the success of the community presentation, another presentation was designed for youth groups as well as teaching the youth how to resist gang recruitment. Presentations were also designed to educate parents about gang identifiers that may be within their home. Information and pictures gathered from local investigative efforts was used in the presentations, giving a local touch to the message. Pictures of hand signs, tattoos, clothing, and graffiti used locally were shown and discussed.
As the campaign on education and awareness elevated, a decrease in gang-related rumors and activity was observed. Persons the police department believed to have been involved in possible gang activity seemed to go underground or become less visible to patrol officers working their areas.
What Was Learned
What Danville learned during this 18-month effort was that the neighborhood groups that were generating all of the speculation and rumors about gangs were actually present and were active in their neighborhoods in a loosely organized structure. Although they did not meet the definitional requirements of a criminal street gang under Virginia law, they were adopting the clothing, hand signs, graffiti, and attitudes of actual gangs and were beginning to engage in confrontational behavior with other neighborhood groups.
These youth were able to fool themselves and their parents into thinking that the behaviors they were engaging in were innocent and entirely normal. For example, one youth told his parents that the tattoo of his neighborhood group on his arm was actually the initials of his girlfriend's name.
When confronted with the reality of the gang-like behaviors of the various groups, some of the members of the groups, their parents, and the community took a firm stand against gangs. Gang-style clothing and behaviors have reduced in number since the education campaign.
In spite of the success of this initial effort at educating the community about gangs, the work has not ended. The Danville-Pittsylvania Gang Prevention Coalition continues to meet regularly and continues to work on new and innovative ideas. The coalition created the Gang Awareness Resource Center at the local mall. The resource center is open on weekends, and members of the coalition volunteer to work the office. Individuals can come into the resource center and receive literature and view videotapes on antigang information. The resource center is also there for any youths who feel that they need to speak with someone about youth gangs and how they recruit members.
The Danville Police Department continues to investigate any leads and immediately addresses any problems that may relate to gangs or gang activities. So far the educational program maintained its success, with only occasional observation of graffiti on buildings and streets. The instances of groups creating confrontational problems in the mall and throughout the city have drastically declined. Local school officials are reporting very little, if any, problems with gang rumor or activity within the schools. The antigang project PAGE has been a successful operation that continues today. ■