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Prosecutor: Gangs are Suffolk’s top priority

In the fight against gang violence, a community’s greatest asset is knowledge.

That was the message Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Nicole Belote and Neighborhood Enforcement Team Officer Jake Lyons brought to the Bethlehem Ruritan Club Tuesday night.

“One of the biggest problems that exists in combating these street gangs is the community being in denial,” Belote said. “We have to come to the realization that it is here. It is here and it has reared its ugly head pretty severely over the past few years.”

Belote said that combating gang activity has become the top priority of the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, with Commonwealth’s Attorney C. Phillips Ferguson assigning four of the office’s 13 prosecutors to handle gang violence cases.

“It’s a big deal in Suffolk, because gangs ultimately lead to more crimes in Suffolk and more violent crimes in our community,” Belote said.

When the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office began its anti-gang initiative in 2007, police officers recovered more than 50 firearms that were illegally owned in the first three to six months.

Additionally, members of the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office and NET began visiting the middle and high schools as well as community groups.

“Prevention by educating the children is always going to lead to a safer community,” Belote said.

Officer Lyons agreed.

“Ultimately, we don’t want to arrest anybody,” he said. “We want to prevent that from ever happening. (An arrest) means that somebody is already a victim.”

Lyons said that individual community members play a vital role in making that prevention happen. Any time residents see suspicious people walking in their neighborhood, gang graffiti on local monuments or buildings or see suspicious vehicles parked in strange locations, they should contact the police.

“You guys are our number one asset,” Lyons said. “We have got to hit this from all angles. If we don’t have the help and support of the community, we’re not going to get anywhere. We need your help.”

Lyons also spoke directly to parents, telling them that they need to be aware of their children’s peer groups, wardrobe and demeanor. A drastic change in any of these can be indicative of gang activity.

Most importantly, he said, parents have to talk to their children about the extreme consequences of getting involved with a gang.

“There’s this cool factor in joining a gang that we can’t get over,” Lyons said. “You have got to take that coolness factor away. You’ve got to talk to your kids and tell them that the people who are telling them gangs are cool are dead wrong. Gangs lead to jail, crime and death.”

For more information about the NET or the Anti-Gang Initiative, call 514-4365.