By Josh Hafenbrack
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Invoking the memory of high-profile gang killings in Palm Beach County, Attorney General Bill McCollum announced Thursday the formation of a statewide task force to find ways to quell a surge in gang violence.
The group's mission: draw up a coordinated, comprehensive strategy to halt a spiraling gang problem that is fueling an increase in murders and drug-related crime, McCollum and other top law enforcement officials said.
McCollum described the task force, composed of Tallahassee-based law enforcement, education and social service officials, as the first of its kind in Florida.
There are at least 1,500 gangs in the state, according to a survey released Thursday by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Broward and Palm Beach counties were identified as hot spots for their activity, though officials said gangs are thriving not only along the urban coast, but also in rural areas.
"I'm confident we'll develop a strategy that will stop the growth of gangs in our state and will render gangs in this state ineffectual," McCollum said at a Capitol news conference. "Our vision for Florida is a state free of gangs."
McCollum said the panel will try to produce a "statewide gang reduction strategy" with a focus on three major areas: strengthening the hand of police working to arrest gang members; prevention programs, including in schools, to reduce the allure of gang life for teenagers; and a more robust rehabilitation program to close the "revolving door" between gangs and prisons.
Providing greater witness protection for people who testify against gangs is an example of one possible recommendation, McCollum said.
The Republican attorney general said there's one measure he doesn't think would prove effective: gun control.
"In the world of crime and drugs and violence that we live in, gang members deal in guns, they're going to find the guns illegally whether they're rated legally or not," McCollum said.
A key unanswered question is whether there will be money for heightened anti-gang efforts. McCollum said he has no immediate plans to ask Gov. Charlie Crist and the Legislature for funding, although that could be part of the group's recommendations when it concludes its work as early as the spring of 2008.
Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, who traveled to Tallahassee two weeks ago to lobby the governor for $10 million in anti-gang funding, said local law enforcement is facing a cash crunch because of property tax cuts. And stamping out gang activity is expensive, he said.
"Most of it's manpower-driven," he said. "Then you've got to have the prosecution end of it. And in the long term, you've got to have the programs to keep the kids out of the gangs. None of this is free."
Nevertheless, Bradshaw said the gang problem cries out for a statewide approach, noting that suspected gang members from Palm Beach County have also turned up in Tallahassee and Orlando. "You've got to have a statewide response, because it's like pushing on a balloon," the sheriff said. "If you push on one side, it pops up on the other."
McCollum's group is just the latest front in the battle against gangs. A statewide grand jury is meeting secretly in South Florida to indict suspected gang members under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly known as RICO.
A federal sweep earlier this year led to 162 arrests of suspected gang members in South Florida.
The problem has been acute in Palm Beach County. The drive-by killing of an 8-month-old boy in Riviera Beach and a fatal Christmas Eve shooting in the Boynton Beach Mall awakened the public to the danger of feuding gangs.
New Fla. task force targets gang violence