John Garcia, former Ohio State Representative and Golden Gloves boxer, passed away 10 years ago, but his reach from the grave is still felt by Ohio’s criminal gangs.
In 1998, Garcia was living on Albert Street in East Toledo. His neighborhood, like others in the city, was scarred with gang graffiti and drug abuse and violence were common, so much so the Toledo Police Department created a gang task force. Toledo was just one city in a state ranked fourth in the country with an estimated 17,000 criminal gang members, according to the National Youth Gang Center. Today, it’s worse. According to the FBI, there are 33,000 gangs and 1.4 million gang members in the United States, 135 of those gangs operate in Ohio.
In 1998, Garcia sponsored a bill drafted by then Attorney General Betty Montgomery. The bill made it a crime to be a member of a criminal gang. While it received support from law enforcement, Garcia was ridiculed by those on the left who said it trampled on a person’s civil rights. They claimed the bill would infringe on a person’s right to assemble. Guilt by association is not a crime, they said.
Garcia pushed forward and later that year Governor George Voinovich came to the East Toledo Family Center to sign the bill into law.
Ten years later, law enforcement finds the bill a useful tool in its fight against gang violence, although it is rarely used.
Det. Orlando Colon of the Lorain Police Department said his department has used the bill twice and found it “extremely effective.”
In the most recent case, the department targeted a gang that controlled Long Street in the western part of the city. Twenty-two members were charged with participating in a criminal gang. Twenty have pled guilty and two cases are pending, Det. Colon said.
“We went after the most violent, the most active and the most influential gang members…They terrorized the citizens of that neighborhood. They had it under iron-clad control. Now, it’s a ghost town. The citizens can now enjoy their neighborhood without these guys controlling them and without the drive-by shootings. We targeted the right people.”
The law, Ohio Revised Code 2923.42, classifies criminal gang participation as a felony and stipulates a sentence of two to eight years. An additional sentence of one to three years can be added to any crime committed by a gang member. Forfeiture of property including drugs, guns, computers, vehicles and property is also stipulated.
However, there are problems.
“It’s rarely used because of the volume of work you have to do with it,” Det. Colon said. “Law enforcement, as a whole, tends to be behind the curve in regards to recognizing gang activity for what it really is. You tend to look at each thing as an individual act instead of how it fits into the big picture.”
Capt. Brad Weis, commander of the Strategic Response Bureau of the Toledo Police Department, and the man who was in charge of the gang task force for seven years agreed. “It’s certainly a positive. But, it’s tough to put a case together because you have to have a past history of gang participation. You have to prove they’re a member of a gang and there usually has to be an offense of violence in their history,” he said.
To compile that past history, police officers need to comb a mountain of reports to determine where crimes are committed, who committed them and who their associates are. Social internet sites are also tracked. Custom designed, expensive, analytical software is utilized to establish relationships between gang members and their activity.
Capt. Weis said two Toledo gangs are expected to be prosecuted under the gang law. The department has ramped up gang counter efforts following the drive-by shooting at the Moody Manor in Toledo in which a one-year-old toddler was killed.
He added that Toledo officers have provided information to prosecutors in Wood and Seneca counties about Toledo gang members arrested there.
Capt. Weis said the department’s gang task force is tracking 20 major gangs and numerous neighborhood gangs. The task force has 15 officers to meet the increased activity.
Julie Wilson, chief assistant prosecutor for Hamilton County, said her department has used the law in three prosecutions in the last five years. The biggest case was a 95-count indictment of members of a north side Cincinnati gang. A report on that investigation by the Cincinnati Police Department and prosecution by Hamilton County was published by the National Network for Safe Communities. The report states 71 arrests were made and 15 gang members were charged with participating in a criminal gang. It concludes that the investigation, called the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV), led to a 40 percent reduction in violent crime in the Northside neighborhood.
Lt. Brett Isaac, director of the CIRV, says that while the law has been used it is time consuming, resource intensive and costly. Besides, he adds, “So many of these gangs are so loosely affiliated that gang prosecution is not the most effective tool.”
“We can’t arrest our way out of these problems,” he added.
Maybe not. But, John Garcia would be pleased to know that his foresight has made some neighborhoods in Ohio safer.