COVINGTON -- Newton County Sheriff's Office Deputy James Fountain's philosophy about gangs lines up with the old adage, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Fountain has been working hard for 10 years to prevent Newton County from falling prey to major gang activity, and he's been fairly successful.
"We saw an increase here when we started seeing folks moving in several years ago when the housing boom was going. We had folks moving in from New York, New Jersey, California, the city of Atlanta and New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina," he said. "A lot of times what happens is young people will bring this with them. They've been exposed to it in other places they lived, and it starts to develop here."
Fountain said the Sheriff's Office has determined those who are seeking to form gangs on the national level have been largely unsuccessful, and instead they've seen the formation of "hybrid gangs."
"Basically you have a group of individuals who get together -- they might be from the same neighborhood, the same school, ride the same school bus -- they get together, form a group, decide what their name is going to be, what their colors are going to be, what their rules are going to be, and then they start doing their little gang stuff," he explained. "They really don't have any association with the national gangs like the Bloods, the Crips, the Gangster Disciples. They may copy their graffiti and do some of the things the Gangster Disciples do, but they're not part of the nationally known, Chicago-based Gangster Disciples."
But Fountain warns that's no reason to discount them and not consider them a threat. He said that attitude was prevalent in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties several years ago.
"They put their heads in the sand for years and said, 'These kids are just pretending. We don't need to worry about it.' Then all of a sudden, it exploded and they're trying to play catch-up. Unfortunately, you never will catch up," he said. "What we have to do in law enforcement is get to a point where the gangs aren't able to operate freely. We keep tabs on them, know who they are and what they're doing. We have to basically make it uncomfortable for them. Unfortunately, what happens is we move them out of here and make them somebody else's problem."
Fountain gave high praise to Sheriff Ezell Brown and Deputy Chief Jerry Carter who told him shortly after their administration was put in place that they were supportive of his efforts to keep tabs on potential gang activity.
"They could have very easily said, 'Well, we don't want to deal with this. We don't want you doing this anymore,' but instead they stepped up and said, 'This is something that's necessary. We know it could develop into a problem.' They have put a lot of support behind it," Fountain said.
He said the NCSO's C.H.A.M.P.S. program addresses the problem to elementary-school age children and he is available to talk to groups interested in learning more about recognizing gang activity and other pertinent information. Fountain is a member of a network of gang investigators throughout the state, which includes most federal law enforcement agencies, that keeps track of gang activity in the area.
Statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice show there are 750,000 active gang members nationwide, with around 15,000 of that number living in Georgia.
"The prime recruiting age is 10 to 13 years of age. We're seeing it in middle schools here. The average age of a person in a gang is 12 to 24 years of age," Fountain said.
Fountain said that the Newton County School System has strict rules which discourage the formation of gangs by prohibiting what they call "non-sanctioned group activity."
"That makes it against the school rules to wear any type of identifiers of being in a gang, whether it be the bandannas, the colored beads, anything of that nature. They face sanctions within the school system if they're identified with any of that stuff," he said.
He said often gang members travel to other communities to commit crimes.
"The guys who are wreaking havoc in Conyers may be Covington residents and vice versa, the group we're having problems with here may live elsewhere. That's why it's so important to talk to other agencies," he said.
Fountain said a common misconception by the public is that it is against the law to be a member of a gang. That's not true.
"What state law says is there's nothing illegal about being in a gang. The only time it becomes illegal is if they engage in illegal activity. They can wear the red bandannas and call themselves the Bloods all day, and as long as they don't break any laws, there's nothing illegal about them walking around Covington with the red bandannas on," he said. "Once they commit an illegal act while being a member of that gang, whether it be vandalism, breaking and entering, whatever, that's when it becomes illegal to be a gang member in the state of Georgia."
Fountain said juveniles should know that if it can be proven that a crime was committed as a gang activity, the Gang Statute enhancement can be added to their charges.
"If they receive a sentence of a couple of years for vandalizing someone's home, if we charge them as a gang member and they're convicted, they could receive an additional 15 years," he said. "That's a pretty serious sentence enhancement."
Evidence that the perpetrators are gang members usually comes from the suspects themselves.
"If they've got the graffiti, are wearing the colors, doing the hand signs, claiming to be a member of gang when they talk with their friends -- when you put all of that stuff together, that's enough for me to go in and say, 'With this evidence, I believe this person is a member of a gang,'" Fountain said.
Fountain said for most Newton County young people, their exposure and information about gangs comes from the Internet, TV or the record industry.
"Unfortunately, that gives them the glamour side of the gang culture. They see the power, prestige, money. We, on the other hand, have to show them the negative side to it. There's only two places they're going to end up in a gang -- either dead or in jail," he cautioned. "We have to catch them early, educate them, don't shelter them, and let them know it's out there."
Fountain said information from the public is critical to what he does and he asks that anyone with information about gangs or who knows of gang graffiti in their neighborhood contact the NCSO Community Outreach Office at 678-625-1417 or go the Sheriff's Office Web site at www.newtonsheriffga.org.