By C. Julia Nelson
cjnelson@reporternewspapers.net

Editor’s Note: Gang and gang member names are not used in this story to avoid giving recognition and in respect of ongoing investigations.

Gangs in Sandy Springs are quickly losing their notoriety.

In the last three months, Sandy Springs Police Senior Officers Jeff Byrd and Jeff Thomas — supported by a federal grant, Project Safe Neighborhood, awarded to the department in February — have been cracking down on gang activity in and around Sandy Springs.

Project Safe Neighborhood supports placing two officers in various training programs to equip them with tools such as surveillance and trailing techniques and provides them with networking opportunities to broaden their resources.

Since initiating the local Gang Unit, progress has already become evident as detectives have linked gang members with previous crimes and solved more than a dozen cases based on leads from the unit. Additionally, several key arrests of individuals believed to be gang leaders, including one arrested at a gang recruiting event a few weeks ago, likely will damage local gang operations.

“In the last two weeks (we’ve put) five or six guys in jail for apartment burglaries,” Byrd said.

Graffiti has become less of an issue as well, according to Thomas.

“Because we’ve worked so aggressively to pick apart the gangs, I’ve seen a large reduction in graffiti in the Sandy Springs area.”

The majority of crimes associated with gangs generally involve graffiti, pedestrian robberies (armed), stolen cars, apartment burglaries and drug trafficking. Often, crimes are carefully premeditated; the gang member will know, or know somebody who knows, the person against which a crime is committed.

“It’s general knowledge that to escalate your status in a gang, you commit robberies,” Byrd said. “Sources have told us that robberies and burglaries are committed based on previous information they get from people they know.”

Apartments are more likely to get burglarized than single family homes because of greater access to more goods. Additionally, it’s generally done in groups – as many people as can fit into one car.

“They have a hundred doors to choose from, as opposed to a house – there’s only one,” Byrd said. “A tactic they use is to pay a drug addict to drive them around an apartment complex to commit burglaries.”

Thomas said many crimes are committed by younger gang members as initiation and fees paid to the leaders. “Money goes toward supplies and weapons,” he said. The kids get drawn in to gain a sense of belonging.

When evidence proves a crime is clearly indicative of street gang activity, a Georgia state law, enacted in 2006, attaches a felony charge. It can land the gang members in jail for up to a year per offense.

“It’s a felony, which carries no bond,” Byrd said. “It takes a misdemeanor (or other charge) – which would’ve had them out of jail in two seconds (with) a low bond – and it locks them up for months.”

These crimes include graffiti, possession of weapons, violence, sex crimes, juvenile recruitment, preventing someone from leaving a gang and racketeering. Thomas said it has changed the attitude of gang members who get caught.

“Before gang members would actually brag to officers and throw gang signs at them. Now they try to hide it,” he said.

Byrd did however say that typically territorial, gang-on-gang violence in Sandy Springs is minimal.

“They have guns, but surprisingly we have not seen a lot of violence,” Byrd said.

Byrd said gang concentration tends to change, sometimes centered between I-285/Roswell Road and Mt. Paran and other times around Dunwoody Place, Roswell Road and Northridge Drive.

Although several gangs have been around Sandy Springs for years, Byrd said it’s difficult to track their history because most gang members are juveniles who either grow out of it or get caught and placed in jail. He said gang membership ranges in age from 12 to 30.

“They go in waves; at any given time we’re only investigating three or four (gangs),” Byrd said.

The unit hopes to educate the community about gangs and is available for presentations at homeowner association meetings, schools and churches.

“We want (the community) to be aware of their surroundings. We don’t want them to fear gangs,” Thomas said. “We are here to protect them and pick apart and basically destroy the gangs who commit organized crimes.”

He said the citizens should “be alert – be curious enough to ask questions and to report any gang activity.”

For more information call 770-551-6900.