New York State Senators led by Michael Balboni believe that Nassau County has a gang problem and now is the time to do something about it. Balboni along with Senators Kemp Hannon, Charles Fuschillo and Carl Marcellino are pushing for the passage of laws such as making it a felony to recruit members on schools grounds.
Senator Michael Balboni, along with his colleagues and Reatha Bostic of Freeport, whose son was killed at the hands of gangs, speaks about the issue in front of the State Supreme Court building.
"When you talk to men and women in law enforcement, they'll tell you that gang violence is getting worse, the number of gang members is increasing and has become one of the real scourges of our communities," Balboni said.
The senator is calling for the expansion of Gangnet, a national computer gang-tracking system that provides information on gang members, their crimes and their affiliations. "It's very critical to the exposure and tracking of gang members to make sure you have computer databases that look at things like hand gestures, colors and tagging and graffiti on different walls in different communities," Balboni said.
According to Balboni, the State Senate has passed a bill that makes it a felony crime for gang recruitment on school grounds. Balboni said he doesn't understand why the bill has not become a law other than there is some concern in the assembly that there may be some profiling involved in identifying gang members. Balboni is also in favor of providing funding for after-school programs that provide education and outreach about gangs to children in grades two through nine and their families.
Thomas Willdigg, who has been a detective for 24 years and is familiar with gangs, said that the problem in Nassau County is very serious. "Years ago, you never had this problem in Nassau County. Gangs have infiltrated just about every community," he said. "There's no barbed wire."
According to Willdigg, fighting gangs involves educating children, parents and school officials, getting more police on the street, and training and dedicating more detectives to investigate gangs and gang crime. "Gangs are on an uprise. I think there's probably 3,000 confirmed gang members in Nassau County, which is probably truly only 50 percent of what is really out there. Very little has been done to combat it in Nassau County," he said.
According to Willdigg, the police force has been cut in the areas of gang enforcement and narcotic enforcement. He said Nassau had eight cops detailed to the gang problem and now only has two.
With the reduction of the police force and youth programs sometimes in danger of being cut due to budget constraints, does the county have the weapons to combat gangs? "I'm concerned about the level of resources in both Suffolk and Nassau and that's why we're trying to get more resources for them. I think it's important to understand that this is because our crime stats have decreased, we still have this problem we have to address now. We can't wait until it becomes an epidemic," Balboni said.
The concern of the potential of gang members in Mineola has been a sensitive subject in Mineola. In 1998, a young man, reportedly a member of the gang Salvadorians with Pride, was shot to death two weeks ago on Willis Avenue. Two weeks later, hours before the Mineola Middle School dance was to begin, a rumor of a gang presence at the dance set off a frenzy of phone calls from concerned parents to both the Nassau County 3rd Precinct and the Mineola Middle School, as reported by the Mineola American.
Nassau County 3rd Precinct commanding officer Lorraine Hannon said that while there are gang members living in Mineola, gang activity is not a problem in the community.
"I've been on Mineola Boulevard and I've seen the signs tagged up with gang graffiti. That's always a sign of gang activity," said Willdigg, who worked in the 3rd Precinct for 24 years. "You have a gang problem. Is it of epidemic proportion? No. Is everybody in a gang in Mineola? No. But one kid in a gang in Mineola is a problem."
Willdigg believes it's not realistic to believe that there are gang members living in the community but their activity is being done elsewhere.
Balboni hears that there are signs of some interactions in the schools but the important thing to remember is that Mineola is not alone. Superintendent of Schools for the Mineola School District Dr. Lorenzo Licopoli believes that signs that could be perceived as gang-related are not uncommon in Nassau County schools.
Signs could be considered symbols on a notebook or tattoos or certain clothing or colors of a student's interest in gang activity. However, a student wearing a certain color is not necessarily proof that he or she is a member of a gang.
Dr. Licopoli said he hasn't assessed the problem with his staff. However, he did say to his knowledge that there have been no recent incidents in the schools that could be related to gangs. He also said that "Mineola High School is a very safe school."
Mineola Mayor Jack M. Martins said that he doesn't see a major gang problem in the village. However, he suggested that the police have a forum in Mineola so that the community can get a sense of what the community is dealing with. The mayor's position is that if the police feel there is a gang problem, it should let the community know what the extent of the problem is and what they plan doing about it.