ALBANY — Some of the victims of recent local gun violence were in elementary school when a war broke out between rival Albany gangs.
But that nearly decadelong feud between the C.M.E. Rattlers and a Bloods-related group is still going strong and being stoked by social media exchanges between the rivals, Dougherty County District Attorney Greg Edwards said.
The rash of violent crimes has included a number of drive-by shootings in which homes have been riddled with bullets from high-powered weaponry. Most recently, a 14-year-old boy was among the victims who have been killed in 2020.
Albany is not alone in seeing a trend of increased violence. Law enforcement officials say it is going on in other metro Georgia areas and across the country.
Much of the violence over the past several months can be traced back to nine years ago, when gunfire first broke out between the two gangs, Edwards said. The district attorney’s office, local law enforcement, and state and federal agencies are actively working to get a handle on the violence.
“They’ve been at war since, I would say, at least 2011,” Edwards said. “That’s when one of the first incidents occurred between the Bloods and the Rattlers.”
Earlier this year, with the emergence of COVID-19, shootings dropped off, but the gangs engaged in a war of words behind the scenes, or rather behind phone keypads with posts on Facebook, the district attorney said.
“I think that, my observation is that COVID caused many people to, No. 1, have the mindset we need to stay in place,” he said. “But there was apparently some communication on social media. A lot of gang activity is facilitated through social media.
“A lot of things that have happened have been the direct result of social media between gangs that ramped up the conflict.”
After the lull, however, shootings became a regular part of nightlife in some Albany neighborhoods. Two weeks ago, there were six shootings in a single 24-hour period.
There have been 16 homicides in Dougherty County so far in 2020, 15 of those occurring within the city limits of Albany. In all but one of the slayings, a gun was the weapon used.
While gang members are gunning for each other, federal, state and local officials are metaphorically gunning to get those who are behind the violence off the streets.
Edwards said his office is working to make sure those who are responsible get some “hard time” in federal prison, along with the assistance of federal prosecutors and federal, state and local law enforcement agencies that are part of a task force focusing on gangs.
Resources are being poured into the battle, but it will take some help from the public to get that job done, said Charles Peeler, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia.
“It’s a small number of individuals who are committing violence,” Peeler said. “If we can identify those people who are committing the violence and (prosecute) them, that can turn a neighborhood around. The eyes and ears of the streets are the people who live in those neighborhoods.”
Peeler said gun violence has erupted across the federal court district, which includes a large swath of the state.
“Columbus, Macon and Albany are all experiencing this spike,” he said. “We had two years of success, and now, of course, there’s this spike.”
Peeler’s office is working with Edwards and various state and local law enforcement agencies through the federal Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative. Part of that effort involves having federal attorneys take on cases that involve guns and drugs, repeat weapons offenders and egregious violent episodes for prosecution at the federal level.
“I talk to (Albany Police Department) Chief Michael Persley regularly,” Peeler said. “I talk to Greg Edwards regularly.”
The group meets once a month to discuss cases to decide which can be taken to the federal level, where convictions involving guns typically carry tougher sentences with no parole, meaning that those who go into the federal prison system serve some 90 percent of the given sentence.
“It is concerning,” Peeler said of the rash of violence. “It certainly is concerning for me. In my view, it is unacceptable. The people in Albany, like the people around the district, should not have to live in a community that is experiencing this violence.”
Albany has received two grants through Project Safe Neighborhoods to assist with efforts such as gang intervention. The federal gang task force also has conducted operations to arrest those who engage in violence.
In April 2018 local, federal and state officials arrested more than 50 people in Operation Arrowhead, targeting those deemed the most violent.
Peeler said he could not comment on whether there are any active investigations going on at the moment.
“I do want the public to know federal law enforcement is alive and well in Albany and is very active and will remain involved until we make the change we all expect,” he said.
Edwards said his office cooperates with federal prosecutors and agreed that taking cases involving guns to federal court, where convictions bring harsher sentences, is vital in removing some of the most violent offenders from the community.
“Gang culture pretty much requires gun possession,” he said. “If you’re part of a gang, you’re going to be armed. Our gang members around the state in general are getting ahold of the most high-powered weapons they can buy or steal.
“Our gang members are doing what they can to get the most potent firepower, including rifles with drum magazines. Drum magazines can be 50 rounds, 100 rounds.”
“Stolen” is a key word in the conversation. The theft of guns left in unlocked cars or from cars in which weapons are in plain sight is a pipeline that supplies guns to drug dealers and gang members.
Recently, Edwards said, a stolen car contained a high-powered rifle, and authorities are anxious to find it before it ends up in the wrong hands.
“In gang culture, stolen guns are the main thing used to trade for drugs or sex or more guns,” Edwards said. “Drug dealers use guns to protect their drugs and collect debts.”
Edwards’ office’s referrals of cases for federal prosecution include those involving illegal weapons, such as sawed-off shotguns, and weapons whose serial numbers have been removed. He also likes to provide cases that are seemingly “ironclad” for which there is overwhelming evidence against the accused offender. Assistant district attorneys in his office work to identify such cases, and a staff liaison to the task force brings them to the attention of federal authorities.
“They’re going to get some really hard time when we send them to the federal level,” Edwards said.
The Dougherty district attorney also is lobbying for a state law that mirrors federal gun statutes, which would bring tougher sentencing for cases in which the offender used a gun. For instance, currently a burglar who commits the crime while armed is typically sentenced on the primary burglary charge and given probation on the weapons count.
Edwards would like to see gun charges made the primary charge in such cases with tough sentences such as those meted out in federal courts.
Criminals will only give up the habit of carrying guns when the potential for prosecution and serious prison time makes it too great a risk, he said.
“We’ve got to make gun crimes — use of a gun — something drug dealers and gang members just do not want to get” caught in, Edwards said. “Hopefully that will take them off the streets or deter them from using guns for crimes.
“Hopefully, the deterrence of them getting some swift and certain time on the state side will help deter crime. I opine we need to bring fear of gun time so that will bring down some of our gun violence.”
Ultimately, Edwards said, there are three goals in the battle: preventing crime by removing offenders and guns from the streets, intervening by prosecuting at the appropriate level when a crime occurs, and restoring offenders to the community once their time is served, with the goal being to prevent them from returning to a life of crime and gang activity.
The relationship built with federal and state agencies has been helpful in working on those goals, he said,
The COVID-19 pandemic brought the courts to a halt for some seven months. Recently county Superior Courts were given the green light to hold grand jury proceedings to indict individuals.
As soon as possible, Edwards said, his office will take cases to trial, including those involving murder and assault. He encouraged the public to participate by serving on grand and trial juries when called.
“There is a very small percentage of people who are committing crimes in a certain jurisdiction,” Edwards said. “We can identify them; we can make sure they get good time — certain time — and reduce their opportunities to commit crimes.”