With a rising tide of gang violence nationwide, the Justice Department set up two special units in the same building and charged them with helping coordinate investigations into some of the country’s deadliest street-crime syndicates.
But three years later, far from helping wipe out the scourge of the nation’s violent gangs, the two groups are hardly even communicating with each other. And that isn’t the only problem.
In November, investigators from the Justice Department’s office of inspector general found that the two units — the National Gang Intelligence Center (NGIC) and the National Gang Targeting, Enforcement and Coordination Center (GangTECC) — “still have not made a significant impact on the department’s anti-gang activities.”
Yet over the past six months, a review by The Washington Times shows that the Justice Department has done little or nothing to improve these essentially ineffective anti-gang programs. That inactivity comes at a time when the department itself has acknowledged the serious and increasing risks posed by the nation’s gangs.
The inspector general’s office, in a 63-page report, said that despite being located in the same suite, NGIC and GangTECC were not effectively collaborating and were not sharing gang-related information, and NGIC had not established a gang-information database for collecting and disseminating gang intelligence as directed by Congress.
The report said NGIC had not developed the capability to effectively share gang information with law enforcement agencies. It also said GangTECC had no budget and lacked the resources to carry out its mission.
Justice spokeswoman Laura Sweeney on Tuesday said the department appreciated the report’s “constructive recommendations,” which she said are “similar in concept to changes already under review.” She said the department’s Criminal Division has been “actively engaged for many months in identifying possible structural changes that will enhance cooperation and coordination in its violent-crime program.”
Ms. Sweeney said the department is considering organizational changes that will “result in more effective and efficient targeting, information-sharing and prosecution of gangs nationwide.” She also said the department is in the process of evaluating and formulating measures to “resolve many of the issues identified in the report.”
According to the IG’s report, NGIC and GangTECC are not effectively providing investigators and prosecutors with “one-stop shopping” for gang information and assistance, and are not contributing significantly to the department’s anti-gang initiatives. The report made a series of recommendations to improve the units, some as simple as merging them so they actually work together.
It’s urgent work. According to a Justice Department estimate, gangs are responsible for as much as 80 percent of the crime in many communities and are the most common street-level drug dealers in the nation. Gangs also are responsible for offenses ranging from human smuggling to extortion and identity theft to homicide.
Law enforcement officials predict the nation’s gang problems will only worsen. The Justice Department’s 2009 Gang Threat Assessment said that as of September 2008 there were about 1 million gang members in the U.S. — an increase of 200,000 from three years earlier. At the same time, rural and suburban areas have seen an increase in gang presence.
And as gangs grow in size, their alliances have become more deadly.
With a propensity for indiscriminate violence, intimidation and coercion, some gangs are considered national security threats. One of the largest is Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, with an FBI estimate of 10,000 members in 42 states, including Maryland and Virginia, as well as the District.
The Justice Department’s 2010 Drug Threat Assessment said Mexican drug cartels formed more alliances in 2009 with violent American street and prison gangs that helped tighten their stranglehold on the lucrative U.S. narcotics market.
“As a result, disrupting illicit-drug availability and distribution will become increasingly difficult for state and local law enforcement agencies,” the report said.
These new alliances come at a time when law enforcement resources are stretched particularly thin.
In April, the inspector general’s office said in a separate audit that the FBI assigned fewer agents to gang cases. It said the FBI used 26 percent of its field agents in 2009 on counterterrorism matters, while 51 percent were assigned to criminal matters, including gang cases.
This reflects the bureau’s changing priorities in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That year, 13 percent of the FBI’s field agents worked on counterterrorism matters, while 72 percent were assigned to criminal matters.
“Because of the importance of anti-gang efforts, and the relevance of gang violence, it is critical that the Department of Justice take swift action to improve the coordination of its anti-gang initiatives,” Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said in February in written testimony to a House Judiciary subcommittee.
Nothing has significantly changed in the months since Mr. Fine’s testimony, The Times’ review found. The department did not address any of the specific recommendations.
The department’s response to the inspector general’s November audit was tepid in the first place. In a letter to Mr. Fine, it said only that it “agrees in concept with all 15 recommendations.”
“Notwithstanding the challenges, it also bears noting that the department’s anti-gang intelligence and coordination centers have been working together and within two months of working together, the centers jointly identified 13 priority gang threats,” Jennifer Shasky Calvery, senior counsel to Deputy Attorney General David Ogden, wrote in the Nov. 10, 2009, letter.
“Accordingly, they have certainly established a foundation upon which to build further success.”
During the same hearing, Ms. Calvery said that in addition to possibly merging NGIC and GangTECC, the department also is considering partnering the units with the well-established, multiagency Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force. She said that would allow NGIC and GangTECC to benefit from the task force’s established technology and auditing capabilities, as well as its accepted information-sharing practices.
“We are working aggressively to resolve whether such a partnership should go forward, the terms of any partnership and to develop an implementation plan,” she said. “The goal is to have these three steps completed within approximately six months.”
The new gang units were established in 2006 to serve as a clearinghouse for information and to facilitate cooperation among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. They were to aid the Justice Department in having “maximum impact at the national level against the most violent gangs in the United States.”
NGIC, which was created by statute, was charged by Congress with creating a gang-information database that would be readily accessible to law enforcement agencies at all levels. The unit, with a staff of 27 and a fiscal 2009 budget of $6.6 million, has not completed the database.
GangTECC, on the other hand, hasn’t received a budget and, according to the IG’s report, “lacks the resources to carry out its mission.” The unit is charged with serving as the central coordinating center for multijurisdictional, multiagency investigations.
It is supposed to bring together the department’s law enforcement components — the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Drug Enforcement Administration; and the U.S. Marshals Service — and the Department of Homeland Security’s investigative wing to coordinate investigations into particular gangs, coordinate overlapping investigations and ensure information is shared among the agencies.
Perhaps most importantly, GangTECC also is charged with preventing law enforcement agencies from getting in the way of one another. The unit, with a staff of 17 supplied by the various agencies that it’s intended to serve, falls under the control of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.
The audit found that the Criminal Division has yet to assign an attorney to provide guidance to investigators and prosecutors. It’s also difficult for GangTECC to prevent overlapping investigations because law enforcement agencies and U.S. attorney’s offices are not required to inform the unit about pending investigations.
“Merging the centers could reduce incompatibilities that result from the current organizational alignment, create a better joint operating environment and provide for a more reliable resource stream to support the centers’ missions,” Mr. Fine wrote in the audit.
“While we believe that merging the centers would improve their ability to assist gang investigations and prosecutions, merger alone is insufficient to support the department’s anti-gang initiatives.”
Mr. Fine also suggested that the department request a separate budget for GangTECC, assign at least one experienced prosecutor to the unit and require participating agencies to inform GangTECC of every new gang-related investigation.
• Ben Conery can be reached at email@example.com.
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