Roanoke has a gang problem, federal prosecutors say.
But a new partnership between law enforcement, city government and the school system, hopes to stop it.
In 2018, Roanoke City had the 4th highest rate of violent crime in Virginia and a murder rate above the national average, according to FBI statistics. And U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen says 2019 isn’t looking any better. "We are convinced that organized gang activity in this city is driving this increase in violent crime," Cullen said during a Thursday morning news conference announcing the creation of Roanoke CARE.
Cullen and Roanoke Police Chief Tim Jones admit violent criminals represent just a small subset of the community and that most of the city’s crime is association-based. "In other words," Jones says "those who have had conflict with each other have had prior contact with each other over the past. There is history there between them that goes bad and frequently results in harm."
But they say it’s the increased recruitment of high-school and middle-school aged children that demands the whole community’s action. Some efforts like the city’s gun violence task force, training to become a trauma-informed school system and increased federal prosecution of gang-related crimes are already underway.
Others are in the works. City school superintendent Rita Bishop will ask parents to take a more active role in safety initiatives. "Talk to your students," Bishop suggests. "Explain to them that frankly there is danger around every corner and quite frankly people will coopt them from all the good things that are available in Roanoke city schools into a situation that may not be at all positive."
Prosecutor Cullen says increased intervention by the community is also needed. "The public has a role in this. We have to love these kids and recognize they’re coming sometimes from tough places and are a victim of circumstance."
Chief Jones also believes the community can be more involved in preventing the theft of firearms and reporting illegal gun possession.
Cullen admits Roanoke's gang issue is small compared to some other cities in Virginia. "In my view this is kind of a stage one diagnosis," he explains. "We know it’s a problem. We’ve identified it. It’s starting to percolate. And every one here recognizes that and is willing to put a full court press in doing something about it."
Doing something about it involves more than just making arrests, Cullen suggests. "Over the last ten years we’ve had an influx of gang members. Why is that," he asked? "There are a myriad of reasons for that and it’s complex. Geography plays a role. Poverty plays a role. Family support plays a role. A lack of particular resources plays a role. And until you address all those issues systemically and fairly, you will never root out this type of activity."