DANVILLE, Va. – Danville police are trying to solve a growing problem with gang activity that they say has contributed to an increase in violent crime in the city.
Lt. Mike Wallace said an ice machine located a short drive southwest of downtown Danville is a symbol of past gang confrontations. Scratched-in gang markings are still visible. Some represented local gangs and others had national affiliations like one section where Bloods and Crips signs are overtop of one another.
"It is here and it's something we're trying to deal with,” Wallace said.
Police said gang activity has been increasing for more than a decade and the landscape is constantly shifting, making it hard to know which gangs are active and who their members are.
"They're always changing. It's always a fluid kind of thing,” Wallace said.
Community members who try not to be involved can still be at risk, police said.
"The horrifying story of two gangs shooting at each other and an innocent child being in the middle of it, that's a nightmare scenario for anybody,” Wallace said.
Gang membership has been up and down as has the homicide rate. There have been quieter stretches like in 2007 and 2014, but two years ago there were more killings per capita in Danville than in any city in the Commonwealth.
Police say gang activity is one reason why there were a record-breaking 16 homicides. The department said in October that there were about 250 gang members in the city.
Wallace and Capt. Dennis Haley have been working gang cases in Danville since the '90s, and, 15 years ago Haley was one of the first officers to focus solely on these cases. Haley said gang membership has increased exponentially since the early 2000s.
"When it comes to gangs they're always going to be recruiting, they're always trying to expand their numbers,” he said.
The department has investigators that specialize in analyzing gang indicators from symbols to clothing.
“A lot of people who aren't familiar with it just have a hard time processing the significance of something like a T-shirt or laces in a tennis shoe,” Haley said.
He believes police are succeeding in taking some members off the streets but those people are often getting exposed to new gangs in jail before they get out.
"They'll bring the knowledge they learned in jail and start trying to put it into effect in the street,” he said.
Officers said while they’ve heard the rumors of MS-13 gang members in Danville, they’ve only noticed them passing through, not establishing a presence in the city.
One disturbing pattern police are seeing is young gang members committing crimes. Haley said leaders are exploiting impressionable kids.
"That is one of the primary issues and parents need to be aware,” he said. “They are going to encourage these underage children, these minors, to commit the crime because if they do it they know they won't face the same penalty."
Officers said the negative feelings many people have against the police have hurt their ability to prevent kids from joining gangs.
"It's a huge issue,” Haley said. "We can go in and make every effort in the world but if the parents spend all their time at home preaching that the police are the enemies and we're the bad guys, not the gangbanger down the street who's trying to get their son to commit a murder, we've got our work cut out for us."
He said he and other officers have had people yell and swear at them while they’re just walking down a street, but he hopes people will be more willing to give them information in the future
"People are reluctant,” he said. “They're afraid of the gangs usually because of threats.
And information from people can be vital to investigations.
"We need the community to tell us what the problems are because they're the ones who see it first,” Haley said.
Corporal T.B. Scearce works with the 22 neighborhood watch groups in the city and believes people thinking about gang activity as either nonexistent or through the roof don’t have the correct perspective.
"We're overrun with gangs or we don't have any gangs and there's really no middle ground, but the truth is everything lies in the middle,” he said.
He said people can really make a difference in their communities by reaching out to others and by speaking to police about crimes.
"First and foremost, neighbors need to communicate,” he said. "There's always that hesitancy to get involved if you feel like you're the only one."
Police Chief Scott Booth, who’s been on the job less than a month, is making a push for officers to get to know more people.
"You talk about how gangs form and how people are pushed and pulled into that lifestyle, I want them to understand that there are alternatives out there and I want them to understand our role as police is to help them,” he said
Booth wants officers to walk through areas of the community in large numbers like this once a month, like they did last week in a neighborhood in Danville.