Operation Gang Up expands to address growing problem
By Amanda Christman (Staff Writer)
Published: January 27, 2014
It started with a 2011 federal report confirming the fearful suspicions that street gangs had infiltrated Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Not long after, plans were laid out by a bipartisan pair of elected officials to create awareness of gangs in the public.They hoped that together, they could halt the grip that gangs were tightening on area youths.
The U.S. Department of Justice report contained research that pinpointed an increase in illegal street gang activity and drug trafficking in the Interstate 80-81 corridor.
U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, a Republican from Hazleton, and state Sen. John Yudichak, a Democrat from Plymouth Township, led an effort that organized people on the community, county, state and federal level to find a solution.
They called it Operation GangUp, and the program traveled throughout Luzerne and Lackawanna counties with community meetings that spurred interest, disseminated knowledge and helped formulate plans to alleviate crimes perpetrated by gangs.
The meetings also gathered experts in the field of law enforcement to educate communities on gangs and the harm they can bring to a community.
They faced a mighty challenge.
Yudichak said not only did the region's proximity to the interstate highway system make it attractive to gangs, but so did the limited resources of local police, the demand for drugs and the little competition gangs faced in drug sales. They had also already infiltrated area youth.
Before Barletta became a congressman, he was the mayor of Hazleton, and during that time he remembered one of his police officers showing him a picture of a third-grade elementary school class. It was 2004 or 2005, Barletta recalled, and that officer, a liaison with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, asked him what was wrong with the picture.
Barletta said he couldn't see anything wrong, that it looked like a "nice" group of children. Then the officer pointed out three children, between ages 9 and 10, who were flashing gang signs.
It had begun.
"And I didn't know what to do," Barletta said. "I didn't want to scare people but I realized we couldn't fight this quietly and through police only."
Barletta and Yudichak eventually joined forces and began discussing what they could do to help stop the problem.
"You will never eliminate all the gang activity but you can fight back," Barletta said.
Yudichak said the pair took politics out of their talks and came up with Operation GangUp, an initiative driven by the community. The program touched on multiple points concerning gang activity and kicked off with a series of public forums.
The first session was held June 8, 2011, at Penn State Hazleton. It featured renowned gang experts from various law enforcement agencies, including D. Darrell Dones, supervisory special agent of the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI.
They discussed the gang problem and anti-gang strategies that worked in other areas around the country. They found that research showed the gang problem in Hazleton would continue to grow and would also spread into neighboring communities, making it a regional concern, unless someone or something stopped them. "It becomes a cancer in the community that will continue to grow until good people give up and leave out of fear," Barletta said.
Yudichak said the program was geared to address gangs as a regional problem that needs regional solutions. The forum caught people's attention, paving the way for other sessions held in Wilkes-Barre and Nanticoke, and another in Hazleton. Many of the forums were televised, giving viewers at home a chance to listen in.
Gang awareness training was provided for faculty and staff in all 11 school districts in Luzerne County through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and Luzerne Intermediate Unit. Hazleton Area School District already had its own gang task force in place at the time, Yudichak said.
Feedback from teachers has been positive, he said, as they're now able to defuse a situation before it becomes an incident.
The program is unique, Barletta said, as it empowers people by giving them knowledge and tools. It's an example of putting politics aside and getting officials to realize they can work together.
"Far too often it's the gridlock in politics people focus on," he said.
With support from state lawmakers, Gov. Tom Corbett signed the first Pennsylvania anti-gang law in 2012. It defines what a criminal gang is and sets penalties, but also makes it illegal to forcefully recruit a juvenile into a gang, a maneuver gangs use to "put their foot in a community," Yudichak said.
He said Operation GangUp also worked closely with state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who doesn't face the jurisdictional boundaries that other law enforcement groups do and can track and follow street gangs throughout the commonwealth. Yudichak said he and other state lawmakers fought for $2.5 million in funding for Kane's Region X IMPACT street crimes unit. Its personnel are able to disrupt and dismantle gangs and drug-dealing organizations.
Barletta said getting the FBI involved was really what gave the program credibility. Agents were the key players, he said, and the FBI's Dones kept coming up with better ideas on how to enhance the program and save children.
As the ideas for the program were developed, Barletta said, organizers wanted it to be more than a one-time effort so they continue to gather information on the program and enhance it.
Operation GangUp isn't stopping in the Northeast. Yudichak said it has become a practice model for other communities and is currently moving into central Pennsylvania.
A community forum has already been held in Harrisburg, and Barletta said there also have been requests to bring the one-of-a-kind program to Sunbury and Philadelphia.
As people learn more about the program, Barletta said, they begin to understand they need to be proactive. Barletta said he is considering how to bring research from Operation GangUp to Washington, D.C., so lawmakers can witness its success and see that they also can have a role in it.
Yudichak said the biggest success story to come from Operation GangUp will be after-school programs in Luzerne County, modeled after the successful Lehigh Carbon Community College Shine Program, which has served neighboring Carbon and Schuylkill counties for years. Shine began in Carbon County in 2002 and partnered with early childhood programs to keep kids safe after school while their parents may still be working, he said.
The program aims to prevent crime by keeping children away from falling into trouble and Yudichak said it has gotten parents and teachers engaged in children's lives. Talks have begun to bring Shine to the area with the Luzerne Intermediate Unit, area colleges and universities, the Hazleton One Community Center and Building Bridges in Wilkes-Barre.
"I think we are hitting on all cylinders and I think the after-school program will put it all together," Yudichak said.