Operation GangUp has its roots in early 2011 when U.S. Representative Lou Barletta (R) and State Senator John Yudichak (D) came together to discuss the increasing gang activity in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and how to combat the growing issue.
As early as 2005, Mr. Barletta and Hazleton Police Chief Robert Ferdinand recognized problems with gangs and traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with officials in the Department of Justice. They believed the first step of this new project would be to promote gang awareness and educate the public on gang-related topics. The primary purpose and goals of the operation include working closely with local law enforcement as well as community administrators and educators to develop preventative strategies, conduct research and institute the best practices for reducing gang activity, and offer training to those who require it.
The first gang awareness informational session that was open to the public occurred on June 8th, 2011 at Penn State’s Hazleton Campus. This event featured renowned gang experts from around the area as well as various law enforcement agents, including D. Darrell Dones, Supervisory Special Agent of the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI; Kent Lane of the Pennsylvania State Police; Detective Chris Orozco of the Hazleton Police Department and founder of the city’s Gang Task Force; Chief Larry Semenza of the Old Forge Police Department; Luzerne County District Attorney Jackie Musto Caroll and Lackawanna County District Attorney Andrew Jarbola. These professionals were gathered to discuss strategies that have worked in other areas around the country, and allowed a public Q&A toward the end of the meeting. The goal was to spark interest and concern in the community and to set the stage for many more meetings and action plans to come.
The next event took place on February 23rd, 2012 at King’s College Campus, as the operation began to pick up pace. Another Q&A panel discussion took place at the end of the meeting with experts Special Agent D. Darrell Dones and Chief Larry Semenza, plus a few other professionals who began to support the cause. This includes Intelligence Captain Robert Maguire of Lackawanna County Prison and esteemed member of many gang related institutions; Officer Brian Lavan who serves as Director of Police Operations and Security for the Wilkes-Barre Area School District; Chief Len Mickavicz of the Taylor Police Department who has served on the U.S. Marshal’s Fugitive Task Force and the Lackawanna County Drug Task Force; and David Tosh, the Director of Secondary Education for the Wyoming Valley West School District. The list of supporters continues to increase across many different fields, including educators and professors, law enforcement officers and special agents from local, state, and federal institutions, correctional officers, and more. Also in between meetings and events, Barletta and Yudichak had been touring the different districts of NEPA, educating neighborhoods and recognizing gangs as a serious problem in the community. Specific examples were cited in recent news which has increased awareness, including a February 9th assault on a 15-year-old GAR High School student (which may or may not be gang related) and the abduction and beating of a teenage girl in the Hazleton School District, an assault initiated by gangs. According to Yudichak, GangUp officially began after the DOJ identified a move in gang activity to Hazleton. This may be as a result of its proximity to major cities, increased drug market, limited police presence, or a combination of the three.
On May 3rd, 2012 at Luzerne County Community College, the third Gang Awareness Information Session took place with an emphasis on community based actions. Dr. D. Darell Dones provided another brief informational presentation and Detective Chris Orozco made another appearance, along with another expert panel. The panel members include Carmen Ambrosino, who is the CEO of Wyoming Valley Alcohol and Drug Services (WVADS) and a certified Drug and Addiction Counselor; Arthur Breese, who serves as Director of Diversity for Geisinger Health Care Systems as well as President of Northeastern Pennsylvania Diversity Education Consortium; William Browning, who is currently Director of the Lackawanna County Department of Human Services and Children and Youth Services; Angel Jirau, who is the Executive Director and founder of the local Spanish American Leaders Serving All (SALSA) as well as a Community Diversity Activist; Tricia Thomas, who serves as Executive Director of the Boys and Girls Club of Northeastern PA, which provides after school and summer programming for children; and Theresa Tyler-Smith who is the Co-Pastor of New Covenant Christian Fellowship Church and founder/director of BMW (Beyond Morning Worship). Operation GangUp has succeeded in collecting more community administrators and activists, whom are essential to promoting a safer lifestyle and environment.
It was at this meeting it was announced that The Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development would serve as the facilitator and convener to Operation GangUp’s five committees and provide research support for the project. At this time various initiatives are underway to include training on a variety of levels, public policy and research. The subcommittees began meeting in summer 2012.
On the morning of September 11, 2012 the legislative subcommittee met at the Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development’s Wilkes-Barre office. The meeting included: representatives from Congressman Barletta’s office; Senator Yudichak and his Chief of Staff, Mark Grochocki; Detective Chris Orozco; Captain Robert Maguire, the Luzerne County District Attorney, and Chris Lynch, Lieutenant Detective of the District Attorney’s office and The Institute staff. The meeting began with the organization and clarification of a plan, enumerating the positions and goals of a subcommittee, and then moved on to the law enforcement perspective presented by Orozco and Maguire. They addressed topics such as further training for law enforcement officers and educators, as well as the basic definitions of gangs, activity, and recruitment. This led to the discussion of the provisions that needed to be included in Pennsylvania’s first piece of gang legislation. More specifically, the legislation needed to define a gang, create stiffer punishments for recruitment of gang members and stiffer penalties for gang crimes. The law enforcement representatives indicated these initial provisions would improve their ability to charge offenders and the DA’s office agreed it would enable prosecution. The meeting created a solid foundation for Operation Gang Up and would lead to additional gang legislation in the future. Unlike New York and New Jersey, Pennsylvania did not have gang-related laws and Operation Gang Up worked to change that.
The fourth informational meeting took place on September 27, 2012 at Hazleton Area High School, with an emphasis on law enforcement. The meeting began with a general overview of gangs and recent gang activity trends. The speaker, Peter Jurack Unit Chief of the FBI’s Safe Streets and Gang Unit, identified certain offenses that gangs engaged in, including narcotics and the trafficking of young and vulnerable women, including teens. Mr. Jurack noted that the United States has about 164 gang task forces, consisting of roughly 829 special agents and 1,400 task force officers. Because of such a small unit in comparison to the U.S. population, such task forces cooperate with local and state agencies to combat crime. Together they engage the most important part of the equation, our citizens. Mr. Jurack stressed that these force multipliers are the key to removing gangs from any area.
The speaker commented on gang movements from urban areas to rural communities, as police departments successfully root out gang activities, they find a new place to reside. This is exactly the case in Hazleton – a small city in between major cities, where gangs have settled. The task forces typically target gang leaders, who make the decisions. Focus is also not on gang membership, but primarily the criminal activity associated with gangs. The task forces also partner with other agencies to pool resources to clean up neighborhoods.
A question and answer session at this meeting shed additional light on the area’s gang activity. It was determined that gangs target average, law-abiding citizens, specifically those they view as the most vulnerable. For example, houses without alarm systems or a guard dog are more likely to be broken into. The Hazleton Police Chief spoke about the importance of keeping the public informed and stressed education. Whenever possible, he said he will expose as much information as possible to the media in order to improve community awareness.
On Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, Pennsylvania legislation on gang activity and recruitment was unanimously approved by the State House of Representatives and sent to Governor Tom Corbett for signature. The legislation includes an official definition of a criminal street gang, described as a formal or informal ongoing organization, association or group, with or without an established hierarchy that has one of its primary activities the commission of criminal or delinquent acts and that consists of three or more persons. Once instituted, this bipartisan bill will carry heavy penalties for those causing physical harm, using intimidation or force, or engaging in violence or drug trafficking in order to benefit a gang. Penalties are actually enhanced if the victim of gang activity is under the age of sixteen. Additionally, as previously stated, the bill also lists related offenses that are now covered by the law, which include various crimes and forms of recruitment. The purpose of this is to limit the growth of gang activity before it begins.
The next meeting pertaining to Operation Gang Up occurred on Tuesday, November 13, 2012, at The Institute’s Wilkes-Barre office. Bob Maguire of Lackawanna County Prisons returned to deliver another demonstration on gang awareness, serving the important function of educating area communities. Unfortunately, Chris Orozco of the Hazleton Police Department and FBI task force was unable to present with Captain Maguire as he had prior engagements in court.
This meeting presentation was similar to others conducted by Captain Maguire, as he informed community youth, parents, educators, administrators, and school systems on the dangers and habits of gang life. His presentation covered ways of identifying potential gang affiliates and reasons why youth are drawn to gang life.
On November 14, Captain Maguire conducted a community gang awareness session and the audience was comprised of local crime watch members.
The presentation reinforced the importance of acknowledging the growing threat of gang activity in the area. By understanding signs, patterns, and negative consequences that gang life may bring, communities can learn to administer necessary precautions and allocate resources to combat this problem.
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