By Dan Hust
SULLIVAN COUNTY October 6, 2006 Gangs.
The term conjures images of thugs roaming the streets at will and a community full of violence, drugs, rapes, murders and general lawlessness.
And that’s a stereotype, police say, fueled by fictional films and sensational media coverage of turf wars in the gang-infested inner cities of places like LA and Chicago.
Gangs are more likely to be close-knit groups of young men between 13 and 20 years old who find common bonds in ethnicity and fashion, which create a sense of belonging and purpose.
And that’s not criminal.
Of course, the problem is that these groups can easily get into trouble with drugs and damaging mischief, which is criminal.
And there’s always the chance that a real gang of criminals will take an interest in these young wannabes either inviting them to join or violently ensuring they never get that opportunity.
It’s those smaller gangs, those wannabes, which have local police’s attention, and according to some, it’s not just in Sullivan County’s urban centers of Monticello and Liberty.
According to the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Department’s Sgt. Luis Alvarez, gang activity has been noted in Jeffersonville, Glen Spey and Livingston Manor.
“They’re working all over,” he explained. “The county is very vulnerable because we don’t have a very strong police force.”
The lack of a large law enforcement presence may be due to the lack of population in the county, but according to Alvarez, that’s exactly what gangs find appealing about the area.
“They know one fact about Jeffersonville,” he said by way of example. “They don’t have to worry about the police.”
He points to an increase in burglaries and drugs as proof.
“You can’t be selling drugs on a corner unless you have a territory,” he said. “Every single township has it going on.”
The State Police, however, aren’t so sure that it’s all gang-related.
“I haven’t seen it,” remarked Zone Commander James Boylan, who oversees the county’s State Police forces out of the Liberty barracks. “A lot of these so-called ‘gangs’ are wannabes.”
Nevertheless, Boylan has been working closely with the Monticello Police Department to respond to confirmed gang behavior in the village the one spot in Sullivan County all the police agencies agree has a gang problem.
In addition to the Community Policing Unit (a joint effort by local law enforcement personnel), the State Police have sent their gun and narcotics units to Monticello’s aid.
But that’s the only place Boylan’s staff has seen gang-related problems.
Still, “it’s going to affect other areas of the county,” Boylan said.
And that’s cause for worry, agreed Liberty Police Chief Michael DeFrank.
“People shouldn’t be boarding up their windows,” DeFrank commented, “but there’s absolutely a reason to be concerned.”
DeFrank’s force has noted minor gang activity like identifying clothing and footwear on local youngsters, along with the more serious acts of vandalism, graffiti and criminal mischief.
“We need to start taking control of this now,” he said.
Liberty is working on just that, actually, with Officer Anthony Dos Santos now a member of the East Coast Gang Investigation Association. Plus there’s a juvenile officer and two DARE officers, one of whom is the school resource officer at Liberty High. All work on gathering the crucial intelligence needed to intercept illicit gang behavior.
DeFrank is also helping organize a gang-response seminar for local law enforcement, education and social services professionals, and he’s seeking funding for Main Street cameras to make gang members and other potential criminals “feel less comfortable.”
Liberty’s neighbor to the east, Fallsburg, is also on alert, but like DeFrank, Fallsburg PD Chief Angel Lamboy isn’t convinced people should fret just yet.
“It seems to have stayed away from here,” he remarked from his South Fallsburg headquarters.
He and his staff, however, said they have seen evidence of loose-knit gang activity graffiti advertising the presence of the Latin Kings or the Bloods or a locally named group called the SWATS, which police say are simple wannabes.
There’s been some damage to residences and businesses, along with a few fights, but Lamboy credited his crew with actively responding to youth issues.
“School Resource Officer Jason Berger serves as a conduit for dealing with youth,” said the chief. “He knows who the kids are, and they know him.”
Staffing is key, agreed Monticello Police Chief Doug Solomon. He’s got Louis Velasco in the Monticello school district and Detective and Juvenile Officer Doug Tunno working on resolving problems and gathering intelligence on gangs.
He’s also made sure his staff is trained on how to handle gangs.
Because Monticello has got them Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings and more have been identified.
How does Solomon know?
“Gun violence has gone absolutely off the charts,” he explained. “In the last several years, [gang activity] has been sort of snowballing.”
This year alone, the Monticello PD has responded to 64 gun incidents shots fired, recovered guns or ammunition, illegal gun sales, injured people.
Drugs often go hand-in-hand with gangs, which make a living off their distribution and sale, and Monticello has been called to 76 narcotics incidents just this year. In 2005, that figure was 101.
That’s enormous for a village of 6,500 people and a school district of 3,000 students, said Solomon, who blames some of it on the fact that Monticello has a high number of apartment complexes where gangs can grow and flourish.
Disturbingly, many of these arrests involve locals working with people from out of the area people who find Monticello the perfect out-of-the-way place to conduct organized criminal activity . . . in other words, gangs.
Recognizing that youth caught up in wannabe gangs can and do graduate to the real thing, Solomon has applied for a state grant that could give the village PD up to $60,000 to hire officers and buy equipment to thwart such dangerous activity.
“These gang cultures lead to violence,” he said. “Kids join because of the lack of a family structure [at home].
“It’s not illegal to be in a gang,” he admitted, “but ultimately it leads to that [criminal] end. They’re not the Boy Scouts.”
Yet if he doesn’t get more money and manpower, he’s not sure he can successfully combat it. Stopping gangs requires more than patrols and handcuffs intelligence regarding their activities is crucial.
“Right now we’re stretched so thin,” he explained. “We need the money so we can know more.”
“Chief Solomon is taking the bull by the horns,” complimented SP Commander Boylan, who helps out where he can, “[but] he’s down a lot of manpower.”
That’s an issue for all the local police agencies, perhaps none more so than the Sheriff’s Department, which has to patrol a county 1,000 square miles in size.
Sheriff Michael Schiff has sent nearly a dozen deputies to gang training and is focused on rooting gangs out, but Alvarez lamented that the department is still understaffed and underpaid (through no fault of the sheriff, he added).
“The amount of calls are tremendous,” said Sgt. Alvarez. “We need more staff, more intelligence.”
Alvarez himself is well-known to most of the county’s youth, as he’s heavily involved in DARE and even helps patrol Sullivan County Community College in Loch Sheldrake.
He keeps apprised of gang activity by talking with students directly, and he tries to stop it before it gets anywhere serious.
“But I’m just one guy. It’s not possible [for me to do more],” he said.
Just like Monticello and Liberty, the Sheriff’s Department is angling for funds to boost staffing and equipment before the problem gets out of hand.
So what can the community do in the meantime?
In Monticello, Solomon is organizing a communitywide forum to address the issue, with a date to be announced soon.
The Sheriff’s Department is looking to do something similar and has organized neighborhood watches to flush out suspicious activity.
In essence, police say, the community needs to form its own “gang” of alert, concerned, caring citizens to counteract the influence of those who care nothing for the community.
“More people need to open their eyes,” said Alvarez. “Otherwise, we’re asking for trouble.”
“For whatever reason, people are not forthcoming,” lamented Solomon of his fellow Monticello residents. “People have to take a stand . . . and just not tolerate it.”
He urged citizens to contact the police whenever they see suspicious activity, gang-related or not.
Callers can remain anonymous if they wish.
In Monticello, that number is 794-4422.
In Liberty: 292-4422.
In Fallsburg: 434-4422.
In the rest of Sullivan County, the Sheriff’s Department number is 794-7100, and the State Police can be reached at 292-6600.
If it’s an emergency, 911 will do as well, although that should not be used for basic tipoff calls.
Regardless, police want to hear from the public, and they urge parents and civil authorities to take a more active role in children’s lives.
“If your kid is not home at 9 or 10 on school nights, what do you think he’s doing?” asked Liberty’s Chief DeFrank. “It’s your job to raise your kid.
“This is not just a police problem,” he concluded. “It is a social problem.”