Georgia authorities make gang crackdowns a top priority

A pledge to have a new statewide gang database up and running by year’s end. A promise for more attention on the perils of gang violence. More training to help prosecutors bring criminal charges against gang members. And a vow to explore tough new crackdowns for violent offenders.

Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia’s top law enforcement authorities held a summit Thursday to detail plans to target more violent gang activity, a key part of the Republican’s campaign last year. Kemp said Georgia leaders have reached an inflection point where “we’re not going to put up with it.”

Specific numbers on Georgia’s gang violence are hard to come by, but a litany of law enforcement officers and prosecutors at the Lake Lanier conference said they see gangs as the state’s top threat to public safety.

They shared stories of drive-by shootings in sparsely populated counties, slayings in small-town stores and a resurgence in organized crime in rural areas. Baldwin County Sheriff Bill Massee put a finer point on the trend.

He said gang violence dropped off dramatically after a crackdown a few decades ago, but gangs started experiencing a revival in his county after the Great Recession sapped the area of roughly 6,000 jobs and shellacked property values.

“Times are changing,” Massee said. “I’ve seen a proliferation and a growth of gang membership in Middle Georgia.”

Federal authorities said they were taking a more aggressive approach. U.S. Attorney Bobby Christine, the top federal prosecutor in South Georgia, said only a sustained and strategic attack on gang violence will dent a crime that is “glorified in the sewer of pop culture.”

“Our enemies — the pimps, the gangs — they are engaged in this all the time,” Christine said. “We can’t have one-off episodic victories where we put one guy in jail. We’ve got to come in behind their lines and make a significant difference.”

‘Load the wagon’

Vic Reynolds, the new head of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said his office will soon seek bids to improve a database created in 2010 to track gang members that he hopes will be activated this year. It was a key part of Kemp’s “stop and dismantle” campaign pledge.

And John Regan of the Prosecutors Attorneys Council said the organization plans “anti-cartel” courses designed to train local district attorneys how to put together a criminal case from front to back.

“Our goal is to make all of our prosecutors gang prosecutors,” Regan said.

And Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr said efforts to better publicize the threat of gang violence — and successful prosecution of gang members — could pay off.

“There’s increased awareness of this in the media. Most folks that I talk to recognize there is a gang issue and a gang problem in their communities,” he said. “They want to know that there’s something we’re doing.”

Throughout the 90-minute conference, Kemp and other politicians heard from sheriffs who warned that lower-level offenders with no ties to organized crime can get plunged into the culture while serving prison sentences alongside gang leaders.

“We have to deal with our prison system — we have people literally running gangs from our prison system,” Kemp said.

The governor would not delve into specifics in an interview after the summit, but ideas included tougher crackdowns on prison contraband, increased penalties for violent offenses and new initiatives to separate known gang members in prisons from other inmates.

Top lawmakers said they will make the issue a priority during next year’s legislative session.

“This is the best hour and a half I’ve spent in a long time legislatively,” Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller said. “This has been eye-opening and informative, and I pledge to you if we get this information to the Legislature: Governor, load the wagon. Don’t worry about the mules.”

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