An increase in street-level, localized gang activity is leading Waco- area law enforcement agencies to beef up intelligence-gathering and coordination, according to authorities.
Police officials say they are meeting regularly to share insight and intelligence, while the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office prepares to fill a newly approved position for a gang intelligence officer, who will be tasked with collecting and disseminating information identifying gang members and tracking their activities.
Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said the multiagency effort is intended to combat potential escalation from what he referred to as “hooliganism” to more serious criminal activity, such as robberies or homicides.
He compared the response from local agencies as similar to upping traffic enforcement to slow down speeders, saying that an increase in gang activity “has a tendency to become very violent, very quickly.”
“If we make it discouraging to become involved in gangs, it will be a way to keep our youth from killing themselves the way they are doing across the country,” he said.
The spokesman described a marked increase in certain criminal activities in the past two years, thought to stem from neighborhood gangs — loosely defined as cliques of three or more people who regularly commit crimes. Members are typically in their teens and early 20s and often have grown up together, Swanton said.
Officials said neighborhood gangs tend to be disorganized, unlike prison or large international gangs, which often operate in a strict hierarchy and by their own set of bylaws.
Authorities think there is not necessarily an increase in membership of the neighborhood groups, but rather an increase in activity, Swanton said.
The spokesman did not give a number of how many neighborhood gangs exist in Waco, saying only that there were “several.” Some of the groups have lingered through the years, while others grow, then fade away, Swanton said.
The increase is based on anecdotal evidence, he said. There are no readily available statistics documenting it. For example, authorities have noticed an uptick in calls thought to stem from gang activity — mostly by way of large disturbances and calls about assaults, he said.
Detectives also are investigating the possibility that the April 29 shooting death of a 17-year-old boy, in the parking lot of a smoke shop at North 13th Street and Waco Drive, may have some ties to gang activity, according to the spokesman.
Generally speaking, the neighborhood cliques are typically involved in lower-level criminal activity, such as small-time drug dealing and assaults. For the most part, crimes target fellow gang members and rivals, Swanton said.
But officials also are concerned about the potential for a spillover effect. A strong-arm robbery in which a man in his 80s was reportedly assaulted and robbed led investigators to a man who was identified by authorities as a member of one of the neighborhood groups. But in that case, officials are not certain whether the alleged robbery was part of organized gang activity or was an offense committed only by an individual thought to be a gang member, Swanton said.
The step between what Waco police spokesman Steve Anderson termed as “delinquent” behavior and felonious acts “changes the whole dynamic of what they are and what they do,” he said.
Authorities are concerned not only about the security of the community, but the fates of those involved in such enterprises, Swanton said.
“We know that it’s just not a healthy activity for youths to be involved in, whether because of the violence, the association of other criminal activity (or) becoming involved in drugs and drug abuse,” he said. “We will do what we can to protect those from harm, even though they may not seek that protection.”
In the past few months, Waco Police Department has led an initiative to gather representatives from multiple criminal justice agencies — including the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office, law enforcement agencies in McLennan and Bell counties, and the probation office — to share their experiences and intelligence in an effort to track trends, Swanton said.
“It’s imperative that we have local law enforcement agency cooperation — everybody is getting together to get a handle on what’s going on,” he said.
In light of the changing dynamics in the criminal world, the McLennan County Commissioners Court recently approved a plan to hire a gang intelligence officer intended to glean information from jailhouse, law enforcement and other sources to keep the pulse on the dynamics of the organized criminal underworld, Chief Deputy Matt Cawthon said.
Having such an officer at the jail gives a good opportunity for someone who is properly trained to gather such information, he said.
Both Swanton and McLennan County sheriff’s officials reported an increase in activity from prison and international gangs, in addition to neighborhood gangs.
Swanton described the increase as slight, but said city investigators have been meeting with state officials on the topic for about a year to track various activities.
Cawthon said the sheriff wants the gang intelligence officer to play an integral role in mining a “wealth of information on the streets, as well as the jail,” analyzing it and disseminating it to the appropriate contacts at various local city, state and federal agencies.
Equally important will be for the officer to act as a liaison with other departments, ensuring that they disseminate the information to agencies, according to the chief deputy.
“The jail is a choke point, a funnel . . . sooner or later, most of these (gang members) are going to end up at our jail,” Cawthon said.