Montgomery County’s elected leaders, law enforcement and prosecutors gathered Monday to share concerns about a recent increase in gang violence.
Officials have noticed rising levels of gang-related homicides and robberies in the county since 2015, and State’s Attorney John McCarthy said these numbers likely don’t paint a complete picture.
“I will tell you I’ve had some personal alarm watching what’s transpiring over the last year or so,” he told a County Council committee that met in Rockville. “I really don’t know that we have a real idea of the full extent to which there is gang crime in the county.”
In the past, a year might go by without any killings tied to gang activity in the county. But over the past two years, McCarthy said county authorities have linked 18 homicides to criminal organizations. And on any given day, roughly a quarter of the inmates in the county jail are self-identified gang members, he said.
Gangs such as MS-13, Hittsquad, the Bloods and the Crips all have a presence in Montgomery County, he said.
The relative youth of the group members orchestrating and carrying out attacks also is striking to authorities. McCarthy brought up the recent conviction of an MS-13 member who was only 16 years old in 2016 when he ordered hits on two men at the Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg.
“Our killers are younger, and they are making calls in some of these scenarios that are terrifying,” he said.
McCarthy and members of the Montgomery County Department of Police asked council members for targeted resources to stem the tide of gang violence. A work group in the State’s Attorney’s Office determined the agency needs three more prosecutors to handle gang-related cases and two paralegals who could track the incidents and keep an eye on social media. Many gang members use Facebook and other platforms as tools for recruitment or intimidation, and the social media accounts are gold mines of information for authorities, McCarthy said.
The state’s attorney said authorities should reach out to students at middle and high schools to prevent criminal organizations from gaining a foothold there and called for changing Maryland statutes that make it difficult to prosecute gang-related crimes.
“We’ve had 18 dead people in the last two years. We’ve got a rising gang problem,” he said. “We have to do something now, and what we’re doing is not working.”
Council member Marc Elrich said officials shouldn’t put off the requests from the state’s attorney and police department until budget talks for the next fiscal year are held in the spring.
“That’s not going to cut it. We’ve got to figure out how to redeploy things now,” he said.
However, Elrich, who chairs the public safety committee, stressed that fighting gang violence means targeting individuals rather than communities. Members of crime organizations represent a tiny portion of the county population , and it’s counterproductive to tie any one group with gang activity, he said.
During the meeting, police Chief Thomas Manger reviewed statistics showing that, despite the uptick in gang violence, serious crime in the county declined by 5.6 percent overall in 2016. There were 15 homicides, compared to 30 the prior year, and aggravated assaults sank by about 28 percent. The number of rape cases climbed by about 9.4 percent, Manger said, although he suggested part of the jump could reflect better reporting rather than an increased frequency of sexual assaults.