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Mich. city wants tougher gang laws

The Grand Rapid Press

HOLLAND, Mich. — Tracking Holland's gangs for years has led city police Detective Al Rios to the conclusion that even in down times, the leaders never stop recruiting "futures" and, once you're in, it's tough to get out.

Rios and other Holland detectives watch who comes out of prison and what they do. They try to learn who is pushing others to join the gangs and what is behind each tussle between rivals.

And many times, to their dismay, state laws do not give authorities the ammunition to lock up offenders and have the punishment terms deliver the message that gang-banging does not pay.

"It's their own little world, and we monitor them real closely," said Rios, who follows as many as 15 gangs in the city. "They say 'once a member, always a member,' but you can't get them all to stop or to understand that it's not a way to live."

Legislation passed out of the state Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday could help police in Holland and beyond combat gangs.

Sen. Mark Jansen, R-Gaines Township, and Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw Township, propose laws that would make it a felony to solicit for gang membership, retaliate against someone pulling out of a gang and commit a crime under the auspices of the group.

Jansen said the initiatives are another tool for police and prosecutors to thwart gang mentality.

"They create a lot of havoc in the lives of people, their own and others," Jansen said of gang members. "This is a threat that if they go that way, there's years behind bars for them."

Officers, including Holland Capt. Matt Messer and Wyoming detectives, testified before the Judiciary Committee on the necessity for the statutes. In Holland, gang investigations often have gone to federal prosecutions because of increased prison terms and lack of state laws, Messer said.

"We need something on the books to get it established," Messer said.

Ralph Mason, a Grand Rapids Police Department lieutenant, supports adding teeth to gang prosecutions. However, he says most of the legislation will need court testimony from fellow members or crime victims to earn convictions. That information is not always easy to obtain.

"Anything anti-gang helps, and we'll take another tool," Mason said. "The problem will be how to prove it. These people don't always want to talk."

For authorities, such as Mason and Rios, the prospect of being able to charge suspects of a drive-by shooting in which no one was hurt with a 20-year felony instead of a four-year crime is the allure.

"They plan these things for the gang and shoot up a house for the gang," Rios said. "When you're shooting bullets into a house, the chances are good that eventually you're going to hit someone. It's a violent crime. We have to take it seriously."

Copyright 2008 Grand Rapid Press

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