LPD fights gangs with prevention

Published 9:09 pm Monday, September 4, 2017

During a recent meeting of the LaGrange City Council, several citizens stepped forward and asked what is being done by the city to keep children out of gangs.

One of the central points of discussion was what efforts the city and the LaGrange Police Department are making to stop gangs through prevention, community outreach and education.

“I am concerned about what is going on with the youth, especially with the gang activity,” Pastor Jesse Adams said during the meeting. “We hear a lot about children that are in gangs. … What is a gang member? What will make our children a gang member? Because you have older adults that don’t even know what to look for as a gang member.”

The city council emphasized its concern for the issue while highlighting programs and initiatives that it has put in place to keep kids out of gangs.

“The mayor and council, I think we do recognize that there has been a gang issue in LaGrange for a number of years,” Mayor Jim Thornton said during the meeting. “The council has taken some very active steps to try to address that through working with law enforcement as well as community outreach efforts with the police department.”

Part of those efforts included funding a gang squad for the LaGrange Police Department four years ago, but education has also played a vital role in discouraging children and teens from joining gangs in the first place.

“We are always involved in prevention,” Sgt. Mark Cavender said. “We work with school resource officers on the LEAD (Law Enforcement Against Drugs) program, and there is actually a segment of the LEAD program that talks about bullying as well as gangs.”

LEAD replaced Drug Abuse Resistance Education in Troup County Schools last year. The major difference between the programs is the wider variety of topics covered under LEAD compared to DARE’s focus almost exclusively on drugs.

“We moved from the DARE program to a program that is like DARE, but it has a gang education component to it,” Sgt. Marshall McCoy said. “Because gangs are becoming more of a problem, we are trying to get to the younger kids to show them about gangs.”

Programs like LEAD are long term solutions, but in the meantime the LPD is training parents and community members to recognize the early signs of gang activity. Cavender noted that the police department hosts roughly 30 presentations discussing gang prevention a year for the community.

“I think there is more of an awareness now then there ever has been before,” Cavendar said. “I think more and more parents and people in the community are able to look for the tell, tale signs of what is going on because we do get a lot of calls from teachers at the schools where they have a concern about a child. We do get a lot of calls from parents who may find something on their kid’s cellphone or social media, and we meet with them and find out what is going on, so I really think it has had an impact over the years.”

The department hopes that the training will encourage area youth to stay away from gangs, and if that fails to provide adults with the tools needed to recognize and intervene. The role of parents and other adults was recognized as a vital one though, since according to McCoy, it is often adults or older teens who encourage children to join gangs.

“You find grown adults using smaller kids or trying to attract smaller kids into gangs while they are young,” McCoy said. “You see these people all the time. They encourage people to do something, but it is always funny, they won’t do it themselves. They want someone else to take the rap, someone else to get in trouble, but they want to profit from it.”

The LaGrange Police Department uses the gang statutes set by the State of Georgia when prosecuting gang activity, but even as they enforce the law, officers hope for a time when they won’t have to make gang related arrests.

“The purpose of the criminal street gang statutes that the State of Georgia has is to eradicate the criminal street gang,” Cavendar said. “We would much rather not charge somebody with gang (violations) because that would mean that we’ve been able to get rid of the gang activity. We’d much rather offer people alternatives to the gang lifestyle such as education or helping them get jobs or whatever to break the cycle of gang violence or gang activity.”

Besides LEAD, the LaGrange Police Department also hosts a free summer camp for community children annually, and many officers make a point of volunteering with youth sports to further forge relationships in the community.

If you believe a child in your life may be becoming involved with a gang, contact the LaGrange Police Department at 706-883-2603.