Once seen as an inner-city problem relegated to lawless corners where boarded-up flop houses converge, criminal street gangs are extending their reach to suburbs and subdivisions, local investigators say.
While the nation's violent crime rate is near a 40-year low, gangs are becoming more entrenched across the U.S. in big cities, small towns and rural areas, including Charlottesville and Albemarle County, according to federal surveys and local police.
A surge over the past decade in tags and flags representing local sects that affiliate with street gangs such as the Bloods, Crips and Mara Salvatrucha has investigators approaching a network of long-active home-grown groups with increasing concern.
Investigators estimate that roughly 600 area people either are active gang members or are associated with gang activity, according to an application for a $36,000 federal grant recently secured by Albemarle police.
Under the program, a consultant will work with local law enforcement; cull census, court and school data; and conduct in-depth interviews and focus groups with community stakeholders to evaluate the threat and develop a comprehensive plan to address it, according to the grant application.
The number of active gangs nationwide increased slightly from 2000 to 2010 to 29,400 while the number of gang members decreased by 2 percent to 756,000 over the same period, according to the federal Justice Department.
Defining gangs and their members can be complex and political. Aspirants for public office seek to display a get-tough approach on crime, and law enforcement agencies want to demonstrate growth in gangs to get more money, critics say.
The implications for some young people are serious, said Dan Maccallair, executive director and a co-founder of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.
Treating people who come from places where gangs proliferate as gang members themselves only perpetuates the cycle, Maccallair said.
"That's the irony of the whole situation," he said. "If you take a 16- or 17-year-old kid and put them in prison, the only thing that happens is that if they weren't gang affiliated before, they will be when they come out -- [joining a gang] is almost a pre-requisite for survival there."
Of the estimated 600 local people who are either active gang members or associated with gang activity, roughly 180 have been validated as gang members by police, either by self-admission or through a vetting process that considers affiliations, criminal history and the adoption of gang-related styles of dress, tattoos and other factors, said Albemarle police Detective James Hope.
These validated members have accounted for 3,000 arrests across the region for crimes ranging from drug deals and drive-by shootings to homicide, according to the application.
"It's not a new issue but we want to dig down a little deeper with data that will help us target the gaps and put our best foot forward," said Albemarle's police chief, Col. Steve Sellers.
To be considered a gang member under Virginia law, an individual must belong to a group of three or more people who use identifiable gang signs and emblems and whose main purpose is to engage in criminal activity. The designation in and of itself is not a crime, but validated gang members who are convicted of certain crimes face enhanced penalties, thanks to a package of state laws passed from 2000 to 2010.
One of the men who lobbied for those penalties dismissed criticism of the state's tough gang laws as measures sanctioning "witch hunts."
"If a 9-year-old came up to me on the street and said, 'I'm a Blood,' I'm not going to validate him as a gang member," said Gene Ballance, vice president of the Virginia Gang Investigators Association and a National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations executive board member.
He would, however, likely write the child's name down in a notebook, he said.
"Don't ever mistake a wannabe, thinking they aren't a gonnabe," Ballance said. "It's the wannabes who put in the work, because they've got something to prove."
Criminal justice experts say law enforcement agencies that spend too much time looking for problems instead of preventing them end up helping to create them. That happens in part, Maccallair said, because local agencies use national statistics on gang participation to justify additional resources.
"Everybody's fighting for funding in an era of the shrinking public dollar," he said.
Charlottesville-based defense attorney Scott Goodman called it part of "the politics of crime."
"Some of the same politicians who want to be seen as being so tough on crime are weak on the front side of providing mental health resources and other preventative measures that would actually decrease crime," he said.
Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo said local law enforcement has not spent enough time working on gang prevention and education. He credited Hope and city police Detective Todd Lucas with making the most of limited resources to get out in front of the issue.
Lucas, Hope and other investigators have made more than 100 presentations on gang activity to students, parents, court services workers, law enforcement and community groups, according to the grant application.
Last year, Albemarle County and Charlottesville established Gang Reduction through Active Community Engagement, a group of law enforcement, court services workers and community stakeholders dedicated to gang prevention and outreach. Neither locality has a single full-time gang investigator, but teams of gang specialists from each department have been holding task force meetings for years, police said.
Hope has been focusing on area gangs for decades and said he has seen reality chip away at a prevailing attitude that local groups were more of a nuisance than a threat.
"The perception was that [our gangs] are small-time, or that this was a city problem, not a county problem, but it's everybody's problem," he said. "We have second- and third-generation gang members, and they live in the city, they live in the suburbs, they live everywhere."