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District Attorney talks gang cases

Last week, the LaGrange City Council received an update on gang cases from the district attorney’s office in LaGrange and Troup County.

The number of gang shootings in LaGrange has decreased dramatically in the last few years, but Herb Cranford, the district attorney for the Coweta Judicial Circuit, said that there is still plenty of work that needs to be done. 

Cranford was appointed to the position in January.

He served in the Coweta Judicial Circuit, which includes Troup County, prior to that appointment.

“Gangs are a reality in this circuit. We are relatively close to Atlanta,” Cranford said. “With things like social media and the internet — the ideologies and the life of gang members that is made so attractive to young people — it has infiltrated our communities in a way that 30 years ago, probably wasn’t possible.”

Cranford emphasized that gangs are considered a major issue throughout the state, and LaGrange is no exception.

“From 2014 to 2016, LaGrange had an average of 16 gang related shootings a year,” Cranford said.

“That is 16 gang related shootings. That means there was a shooting where there was sufficient evidence for the LaGrange Police Department from our office to determine that gang interest motivated the shooting.”

The LaGrange Police Department formally started a gang squad in 2014, and the city has helped fund a gang prosecutor for the DA’s office since 2016. That focused effort is credited with a recent decline in the number of gang shootings.

“In 2017, it dropped to two gang related shootings,” Cranford said. “That is a substantial reduction, and it did not happen for no reason. This happened because of the work of the LaGrange Police Department, the work of the DA’s office, the coordination between law enforcement, the police department and the DA’s office — specifically, the gang investigators at the LaGrange Police Department and the prosecutors in our office who are handling gang cases.”

The DA’s office prosecuted 38 gang cases in 2014, 60 in 2015, 47 in 2016 and 52 in 2017, according to Cranford.

“We’re not just charging people with misdemeanors and giving them probation under the gang act,” Cranford said.

“It’s violent crimes. It’s felons in possession of firearms when we can prove they are possessing that firearm for the gang. It’s armed robberies. These are things that plague our community, and our office is dedicated and committed to prosecuting these cases.”

Cranford said that the DA’s office works with the LPD to determine who gang members are before crimes are committed.

Council member Nathan Gaskin asked if an attempt was made to intervene — especially in the case of juveniles — before crimes are committed when gang members are identified.

Assistant District Attorney Jack Winne said that the LPD usually leads those efforts. The LPD was able to expand on that during the meeting.

“In cases where we have identified younger kids particularly who are involved, school aged kids or so, then we do typically try to reach out to the parents and get the parents involved,” Sgt. Mark Cavender said. “We get the school resource officers involved. A lot of these kids are actively involved in sports, and we’ve worked with the recreation department in the past with waiving fees to get kids involved in various activities. So, there are a number of things that we have done to try to reach out to these kids, particularly the younger kids, prior to a crime committed.”

Early intervention has been one of the focuses of the LPD’s education efforts for years.

“We’ve been doing gang education for faculty members since, I think, 1997 when it came to our attention that some teachers were concerned about the nature of the doodling, and we came to find out that it was gang communication,” Chief Lou Dekmar said.

“As a result of that, there was some intervention opportunities with councilors and schools when they recognized that.”

All of the speakers agreed that early intervention was the best option, though prosecution is still necessary once a crime has been committed.

“Everything I’ve read is that if you don’t have an impact on a child by seventh grade with gang education, the gang gets their hooks in them, and then they are much less likely to listen to their parents, their teachers, their coaches,” Cranford said.

“So, the long-term solution is community engagement, education. The role of our office is once someone does something violent, it is our job to hold them responsible for it and remove them from the community.”

Dekmar said the LPD has also partnered with West Georgia Technical College to help give adults a path out of gangs.

Gaskin also asked about the racial breakdown of those identified as gang members. Cranford said that people of all races can be identified as gang members. Cranford specifically noted the Ghost Face Gangsters is an exclusively white gang.

He also said that the DA’s office’s goal is to make the community safe for law abiding citizens.

“I come to this work as a prosecutor knowing the impact that I can have on the community, and I have seen the impact not only on victims and their families, but defendants and their families,” Cranford said. “I know that the role that I play is to pursue justice.”