Albany Police Department Gang Task Force officials say graffiti such as this on a home on Odum Avenue appears from time to time throughout the city. Gang graffiti can be distinguished from an artistic style by trained professionals.
ALBANY, Ga. -- Since the 2011 "Shock the Six" roundup of many Crip gang members, gang activity has settled some in Albany, according to officials in the Albany Police Department Gang Task Force. Still, vigilance the key word, said commanding officer, Cpt. Wendy Luster.
"You have to be consistent to make sure new problems don't develop," Luster said. "It's like flossing and brushing your teeth. You have to do it every day."
According to the Task Force, four gangs which are known to have caused problems in the past have been identified: The Crips, Bloods, Black Gangsta Disciples and the CME Rattlers, the original "home-grown" gang. Crips and Bloods are thought to have started in Los Angeles in the 1960's and 70's and have slowly spread across the country.
"When you look at those (Crips and Bloods), they have a sense of heritage. They can narrow it down to a founder or co-founder," said Michael Persley, assistant supervisor with the Gang Task Force." They know where they got their names."
While a gang's basic signs, symbols and colors may come directly from the origin of the group, Persley says those trappings are often changed around to suit the tastes of a particular group.
"Some gangs can take this and that, mix them up and take signs and symbols from another gang and make them their own," Persley said. "that's why we caution people not to get hung up on identifying gangs by their colors. That's still partially true, but the smarter law enforcement gets, the more educated the public gets, then gang members will change up."
According to Luster, some other gangs, such as the Hispanic MS13, SUR13 and the Latin Kings have also been identified, although mostly in outlying areas. Those gangs are growing as the city's Hispanic population increases, Luster said.
Active gangs sometime communicate or mark their territory with identifying graffiti on traffic signs, school buses, apartment buildings or even businesses. Persley said gang writing differs from the "art endeavors" of general graffiti and can be distinguished by someone with a knowledge of gangs.
"They might use an alphabet that identifies that gang -- like passing notes in school," Persley said. "If you don't know that alphabet, you won't understand."
However, Luster said specific gang graffiti in a certain part of town can't necessarily be assumed to be what it seems. Sometimes it's put there by someone else to cause trouble between gangs, Persley said.
Because of the way gangs tend to separate into "sets," defining which gang dominates specific areas of the city can be difficult, Task Force officials say. According to Luster, territories can be close to one another, sometimes with rival gangs claiming real estate on opposite sides of the same street.
In some case, membership initiation requires a jump or "beat-in," Gang Force officials say, where all the current members assault the applicant with their fists and feet for a set period of time. Persley said some past initiations have caused fatal injuries. Female perspective members are sometimes "sexed-in," he said.
In other cases, applicants may be required to commit a crime, or there may not be a requirement, Persley said. It depends on the gang, its leadership and the applicant. Persley said that if the perspective member is a desirable sports figure, musician, or if he has a family history in the gang, most often there will be no initiation.
Officials say that while violence does erupt, usually between rival gangs, it's typically confined to fistfights and the like -- nothing like the shootings and stabbings in larger cities, especially Chicago, Miami, Atlanta and Los Angeles. Luster said the Gang Force works hard at minimizing the violence.
"There might be two gangs in a club and a song is being played," Persley said, "and one gang is doing their hand signs. Maybe nothing happens at that point but it could be days later and you have a fight. The club thing might have been the beginning or the middle. You just don't know."
Unlike the organized gangs of Chicago in the 1920's and 30's, Persley said there doesn't seem to be a lot of criminal activity specific to the gangs themselves. Mostly it's confined to individual burglaries or automobile entries for the purpose of supporting the group. Persley emphasized that membership in a gang is not illegal.
For those situations where it can be proven that the gang itself is committing illegal acts, Georgia code 16-14-4 comes into play, Luster said. The law defines a "criminal" street gang, in part, as any organization or group of three or more persons engaging in a variety of crimes including solicitation, coercion or intimidation of another person to commit those crimes. A complete reading of the law is lengthy and complex but is clearly aimed at controlling organized gangs.
Luster urges residents of Albany to keep the Gang Force informed of suspected gang activity in their neighborhoods, calling public participation a "huge resource." She also had some advice for parents who want to help their children stay out of gangs.
"Parents should be aware," she said. "Keep your eyes open. Start early. Don't wait until the child comes home with a black eye. Go to PTO meetings and neighborhood watch. Learn all you can."