"This agreement is something we've been working on now for four to six months," APD Capt. Tim Splain explained at the signing. "This collaboration is something that we've been doing informally for some time, but we wanted to make it a much more formal and recognized effort. We don't do gang investigations in a vacuum; it's a collaborative effort. If we're going to make any kind of impact, we have to do it together."
Under the agreement, five gang investigators will move into shared office space at an undisclosed location. The move comes in response to growing concern about local gang violence.
"In Asheville in 2007, we saw a trend: a 25 percent increase in shootings. We saw a serious need. We began a serious public-awareness campaign [and] we created a gang unit with two detectives," reported Asheville Police Chief Bill Hogan. "We realized as we continued to work on this ... the need for this collaboration. We see the violent crime that occurs. Besides shootings, we also saw an increase in street robberies."
Hogan emphasized, however, that the informal collaborations, increased foot patrols and other efforts are bearing fruit: The APD's figures show a 12 percent decline in shootings in 2008.
The agreement gives task force members full law-enforcement powers throughout the city of Asheville as well as Buncombe and Henderson counties.
"We've seen gang problems for some time, and one of the issues we have is that they're constantly crossing the borders," noted Henderson County Sheriff Rick Davis. "Whereas we've always had our jurisdictional boundaries, this task force breaks down those barriers."
Some recent incidents, such as the armed robbery of an Ingles grocery in Hendersonville, have been linked to gangs operating in the Asheville area, he noted.
Buncombe Sheriff Van Duncan concurred. "I think we all recognize that these are problems that, if we don't step up and take some action, are only going to get worse," he said. "We've had some issues out in the county also, and this gives us an opportunity to get ahead of the curve and head some of this off."
Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore added that Hispanic gangs, biker gangs and "traditional neighborhood gangs" are all active in the area.
Together, the law-enforcement agencies, said Hogan, have identified "25 active gangs in this region [that are] fairly well organized. We have 50 gangs that have membership but aren't very organized."
The task force has an idea about the kinds of behavior it wants to head off. "We've already seen an increase in robberies, and not only are they armed robberies, we see a little bit of a beat-down: It's not just enough to rob a person," noted Hogan. "We believe some of that is gang-initiation activity, where multiple robbers attack one individual. That's one thing we want to get a handle on."
Moore, meanwhile, stressed the need to nip these groups in the bud. "I think it's a question of what's coming if you don't disrupt this crowd early in the process," he warned. "One of the gang investigators sent a craigslist listing to my office where one of our local motorcycle gangs is recruiting members. We basically destroyed their gang in the last year or two. We put most of them in prison, including their leader. One of them killed himself on his motorcycle in a wreck. So they're now on craigslist recruiting for members. Well, we'll be watching them."
To view the gang-task-force agreement, go to www.mountainx.com/xpressfiles.