By John Chambless
With every seat taken, extra chairs brought in and a long line of people standing in the back of the room, the first Town Hall meeting at the New Garden Township Building reflected a community that's concerned.
The meeting on the evening of May 23 was a chance to meet the township's police force, get information about safety, and hear about the drugs and gangs that have crept into Chester County.
“We have three goals tonight -- information sharing, first of all,” said police chief Gerald Simpson in his opening remarks to the crowd. “We'd like to educate you about some public safety issues going on in the community. I want to remove some of the barriers between the police and the public. All of you are a force multiplier for us. What you see and say and tell us helps us do our jobs. … All of us consider it an honor to serve the public.”
A program about street gangs led off the evening, with Sgt. Hugh Ferrill, who served more than 20 years in the New Castle County Police Department in Delaware and has become an expert on the tactics of gangs in the tri-state area.
“This is about community awareness,” Ferrill said. “I've gotten to know gangs and learned about the culture. Tonight is to pass some of that along so if you're in your neighborhood and see gang indicators, you know it.
“I always go back to this: You're sitting at your dinner table and a cockroach runs across your table. Do you have a cockroach presence, or a cockroach problem? Because if you have one on your table, you probably have 250 more in your walls. Once gangs get in and set up shop, and nothing's done about them, they tend to grow. The more people out there that see people flying the colors, the graffiti, and report it in a timely manner, the faster it can be removed from the community.”
Ferrill's video presentation used photos that he obtained by creating fake Facebook profiles and “friending” gang members to infiltrate their operations. “This is how gang members see themselves, and a lot of it is about machismo. This is the image they want you to have,” Ferrill said before playing the video which showed the logos, tattoos and clothing associated with several gangs. The men brandishing weapons and throwing hand gestures were sometimes masked, but very young and always intimidating. After the gang photos, the video focused on criminal biker gangs known to be in the tri-state area.
Ferrill explained that many of the southern Chester County street gangs are Sureno affiliates, reflecting gangs that began on the West Coast after growing up out of rivalries in Mexico and Puerto Rico. The list of gangs in this area – or trying to break into this area – includes Southlos, Playboys, Black Angels, Sapos and others.
Ferrill said police agencies throughout the region are cooperating to keep a lid on the gang rivalries. The problem, he said, begins as early as grade school. “I have seen Surenos as young as the fourth grade,” he said.
There isn't a rigid hierarchy in many hispanic gangs, he said. The head of a gang is the man with the most respect. The battle lines are expressed with graffiti, clothing choices, gang tattoos and hand signals flashed as communication or challenge.
“The graffiti is going to appear when a gang is new in the area, and if they want their presence to be known. They will put it out there if there is a rival gang. They're not saying it to you, they're saying it to other gangs,” Ferrill said, showing images of graffiti from Chester County, including one showing Surenos 13 with the initials VK crossed out, meaning that the Surenos were challenging the Vikings.
“The Vikings are in this area,” Ferrill said. “I've seen them.”
The Ochos have been seen in the Oxford area, he said, showing photos of the eight-ball tattoos worn by the gang's members. La Ocho, the Vikings and La 21 are seen as rivals to the Sureno gangs.
A member of the audience asked Ferrill if people not involved in gangs faced an immediate threat from them. “In my history of working in gangs, for the most part, people who are not involved in the gang lifestyle are kind of left alone by the gangs. However, they will break into your house, especially if you have things that they want. They will do street robberies and business robberies. But violence for no reason against outside people is generally not the case.”
Efforts to stem the tide of gang recruitment needs to begin in the fifth or sixth grade, he said. “The younger we get involved, the better you can send a message to these kids.”
Following Ferrill was Andy Rumford of Kennett Square, whose daughter Kacie, 23, died from a heroin overdose in March. He has formed Kacie's Cause to combat the spread of heroin abuse in Chester County.
“The drug is here,” he said, “and it has been here for years. It's cheap, and can kill with the first dose. A small bag is around $7.50, a bundle of 13 bags is sold on the street for around 70 bucks.” That puts the drug easily within the pocket money of an average teen in Chester County.
Rumford said Kacie's Cause is already making a difference, with a website that has gotten more than 8,000 visitors so far, flyers that have been distributed throughout the region, and media attention being paid to the heroin epidemic.
“Today in the United States, over 36,000 lives a year are lost to overdoses,” he said. “This epidemic is right in front of you. Local convenience stores are finding open heroin bags and needles in their parking lots. Talk about town is that certain food establishments are selling heroin to customers, running drugs out in their food orders. Rep. Chris Ross has indicated to us that he's witnessed drug deals in the Landhope Farms parking lot in Unionville. He contacted state police. Quickly, Landhope installed cameras.
"Almost 100 percent of the heroin that Kacie purchased was right here in this township. It's here. Parents, please be vigilant. Trust your instincts. We need to take back our community,” he said.
Capping the evening, Chief Simpson explained how the New Garden Police Department functions, and how it interacts with the community.
Simpson, who has been at New Garden for two and a half years, said the township has 11 full-time officers, eight of whom are on active patrol. New Garden police operate 20 hours a day, every day, he said, citing Kennett Square and Oxford as the only 24-hour police departments in the area.
The population of the township has increased 55 percent in 20 years, Simpson said, now totaling about 12,000 residents. In 2012, the department got 6,100 calls for service, he said. “In 2013, we're on pace for 6,600,” he said.
The township has high traffic volume and is susceptible to crime because it is so close to Delaware. Criminals know that, and come up into the township and flee back across the state line. “We have major highways between known drug source cities,” Simpson said, indicating Wilmington and Philadelphia as nearby source points.
Simpson unveiled the department's new website, which now has an online arrest blotter, carefully prepared traffic studies, a list of weekly crime data, and an interactive map that shows the type of crime and its location on a street map of the township. There's a tip line for residents to report suspicious activity that's not an emergency, as well as a list of anti-crime resources and e-mail addresses for everyone in the department.
Simpson said the department is busy every day, and “we deal with heroin on a daily basis,” whether in reports of drug sales, or in the thefts and burglaries that are committed by addicts to pay for drugs. “We work with the Municipal Drug Task Force,” Simpson said, "because a lot of the crime in the township is fueled by addictions.”
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.