Gang-busters on the streets
Published 9:50 pm Saturday, September 28, 2013
Late in the afternoon one recent Saturday, Sgt. Jesse Epperson and Officer Ryan Linville check emails after clocking on for the evening shift.
We sit in the southern Suffolk Neighborhood Enforcement Team’s small office at the police department’s Precinct 1 building on East Washington Street.
The deskwork also includes looking up recent warrants for individuals Epperson and Linville hope to run into.
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But prevention is the best cure, as the adage goes. “You get out there and try to find the violation before it becomes a crime,” Linville says.
Epperson adds, “We do a tremendous amount of community-based programs and presentations regarding gangs.”
“It’s not the prettiest car in the world, but I consider it to be the pride of the fleet,” says Epperson.
Surface rust showing through its paint, the Interceptor is old enough to have an analog odometer reading 90-something thousand miles — but I’m told it’s still on the first time around.
We’re on the road at 1625 — police use military time — and hit Cogic Square at the Cypress Manor public housing complex, the scene of three murders in three years and one of the unit’s main focus areas.
We’ll be back twice more before midnight, seeing no evidence of violence.
This visit is before nightfall. Kids ride bikes and throw footballs. Adults stand around talking — and keeping a close eye on the metallic blue squad car. One small boy pretends to throw a rock.
“In my experience, it looks like there are a lot more kids playing” than usual, Epperson says. “The community looks after the kids — most people know which children are whose.”
Next we hit Smith, Wilson and Lee, among a handful of streets just west of Carolina Road and north of the railroad tracks that the officers keep a close eye on.
Epperson stops outside one place where a party is going on, music blaring.
“If you can hear it beyond the property boundaries, it’s against the law,” Linville says. “We’re just trying to make it peaceful for everyone else on the street.”
We move on to Colander Bishop Meadows, another public housing property where folks are peaceful and law-abiding tonight, then to the North Jericho neighborhood. Epperson says police regularly visit Hollywood/Jericho Civic League meetings “to get concerns from the community, then we go back and follow them up.”
We roll on to Cypress Manor Pool. It’s deserted tonight, but Linville says it once was a “hotbed” of gang activity.
Epperson recalls a little less than five years ago discovering 15 or more gang members on the roof of the gazebo “taking pictures of one another.”
Seeing the law, they fled. But the camera was dropped.
“On the camera was a plethora of gang pictures and intelligence, and we actually use that in the gang presentation we do to the schools,” Epperson says.
According to Commonwealth’s Attorney Phil Ferguson, the first Neighborhood Enforcement Team, focusing on southern Suffolk, formed in early 2007 on the recommendation of a multi-agency taskforce his office convened in response to the murder of 14-year-old schoolgirl Diane Holland. Police Chief Thomas Bennett pushed for the second team, focusing on the north, after arriving in Suffolk from Newport News — a city with more notorious and intense gang activity — in June 2009.
About an hour from nightfall, Epperson, Linville and, ensconced in the back of the fleet’s pride, this citizen observer head out Nansemond Parkway to North Suffolk. We’re intruding upon the other team’s territory, but I suspect the officers want to show me how gang areas in the north differ from the south. Cruising Burbage Grant, a neat, nondescript neighborhood Epperson says is home to a lot of military families, they point out a street in which Linville says a recently incarcerated gang member who was high up the ladder had been living with his parents.
“He will never get out of prison,” Epperson remarks.
No, this doesn’t look like gang activity — at least not obvious gang activity.
Linville and myself spot the silver Corvette parked in the tall grass under the Western Freeway at the same time.
Epperson, whose eyes were on the road as we drove west on 17, U-turns and swings down the dead-end gravel track.
The convertible with the top up and North Carolina tags is in reverse as we pull in behind. Linville talks to the driver first, then the passenger.
The young black woman looks dazed as she emerges, and soon several more officers are on scene.
On the lid of the trunk of the fleet’s pride, Linville removes the contents of the woman’s handbag: syringe, small plastic bottle containing water, metal cap off a soda bottle, lighter and ligature — items he describes as a mobile heroin-injecting kit — plus a crack-smoking pipe, some pens, a makeup kit and a crisp $20 bill.
The white male driver, probably in his 60s, steps out grinning. He has four crisp $20 bills in his pocket, and tells the officers he’d parked to urinate.
With a view to obtaining a warrant for his arrest later on a charge of soliciting a prostitute — a Class 1 misdemeanor in this case — police turn the man loose.
“Thank you officer, have a good night,” he tells Linville before driving off.
“That’s what I like about arresting people in the South — they’re so polite,” Linville says.
The apparent prostitute has eight probation violations, and we bring her in. At Western Tidewater Regional Jail, she confesses to spending $200 a day on heroin, but won’t back up an earlier verbal confession to being a prostitute with a signed statement.
“I just want to go to sleep,” she tells Epperson, yawning.
Back in the downtown area, we respond to a report of juveniles attempting to start a fire, soon clearing it up, then conduct a couple of traffic stops, giving the drivers the all-clear.
At 2210, we’re doing 65 miles per hour down North Main Street under lights and siren after someone called in a man “shot in the face” on Pinner Street. It’s soon downgraded to pistol-whipped, and the lights and siren go off. On scene, the man can’t decide upon how much cash his assailant swiped. He says the incident occurred in a cutting behind the graveyard, and we scour with flashlights along the railroad tracks and a nearby asphalt path for blood, coming up empty.
At 2310, all is peaceful on our third and final drive around Cogic Square. Some paperwork is all that remains of Epperson and Linville’s Saturday evening shift.