Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Florida House moves forward anti-gang measures

by Josh Hafenbrack
Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE -- Responding to a surge in gang violence, especially in gang-plagued Palm Beach County, the Legislature took a major step Tuesday to enacting a tougher, broader approach to addressing the problem.

Redefining gangs as "organized crime," the House gave preliminary endorsement to a law that would establish a database of convicted and suspected gang members and launch a $3 million grant program to assist local law enforcement in curtailing gang activity.

The House's preliminary endorsement, which came without objection, sets up final approval as early as today.

"This is a form of domestic terrorism," said state Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Boca Raton, who sponsored the bill (HB 1363). "These people are taking over the streets and becoming a real threat."

"They're extremely well organized, they're extremely sophisticated and they're extremely dangerous. This is no longer about the Sharks and the Jets."

Under the bill, suspected gang members could be charged with a felony for a broad range of gang-related activities, including recruiting members and promoting gangs through cell phones, text messages and e-mails. It also would make it a crime for gang members out on probation to communicate with other gang members.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement would establish the statewide database of gang members and administer grants to local government and police agencies, with a focus on not only locking up gang members, but also preventing new members from joining.

In Palm Beach County, a Christmas Eve gang killing at the Boynton Beach Mall and the New Year's Eve fatal shooting of an 8-month-old in a Riviera Beach drive-by attack brought the gang problem into the public spotlight. Last month, three men were gunned down in a Lake Worth backyard in more gang-driven bloodshed.

Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw praised the House legislation as a necessary adjustment in how politicians and police officers think about gangs. For example, he said creating criminal penalties for gang recruiting would help him prosecute gangs that sell videos of their members brandishing guns and money."

They've been under the radar for the past several years and allowed to flourish a little bit more than what we realized," Bradshaw said, adding that law enforcement officials estimate there are 7,000 gang members in the county.

"Palm Beach County is experiencing something that no other county in this state is experiencing, with the level of violence and the amount of gangs that are here," he said in a phone interview. "This is their base, and they're spreading out."Across Florida, gangs are becoming increasingly prevalent. According to FDLE estimates, about 64,000 gang members and 1,043 gangs have been documented by local police agencies, said spokeswoman Kristen Perezluha.

"This is no longer an urban problem," Hasner said. "They are now spreading to rural parts of Florida."

The anti-gang bill also is moving through the state Senate. Sen. Dave Aronberg of Greenacres, the bill's sponsor, said he's adding a wrinkle based on a proposal from West Palm Beach: authorizing cities and counties to obtain injunctions against gang members meeting in certain locations. Thus, if a gang meets in an abandoned lot, police officers could arrest them merely for congregating.

Aronberg also wants to focus on gang prevention programs, creating partnerships between local police agencies and educators in schools and after-school programs. The idea is to warn children of the dangers of gangs before it's too late, he said.

"This is a major problem," Aronberg said. "This really has grabbed the attention of the Legislature, and that says a lot, given we have property taxes and insurance to deal with."

Josh Hafenbrack can be reached at or 850-224-6214.

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