Hundreds attend gang forum

Published 9:22 pm Saturday, March 18, 2017

More than 200 people came out to a community forum on gangs and violence Saturday at the East Suffolk Recreation Center.

The family of Quantez Russell, who has been missing under suspicious circumstances for 16 months, sponsored the event.

“It was overwhelming,” said Joan Turner, Russell’s mother. “Everybody told me it was very informational and an eye-opener.”

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Russell, who went missing on Nov. 11, 2015, at the age of 30, was involved with a Bloods gang in Newport News, where his vehicle was found at a gas station shortly after he went missing. There was a rumor he was shot in Newport News, but no evidence of the crime has been found, and Russell has not been heard from since.

Joan Turner, mother of missing Suffolk man Quantez Russell, speaks Saturday at a community forum her family organized to bring attention to gang violence.

Turner said she wanted to turn her family’s anguish into a positive thing for the community by sponsoring Saturday’s event.

“The family is hoping if someone was headed in that direction, that they would change because of the event and make it into something better,” she said. “We hope their decisions have changed because of it.”

Many of Russell’s family members, including his 9-year-old son, were in attendance, as were law enforcement officers, city officials and many members of the community.

Turner presented a slideshow featuring photos from Russell’s life, ranging from when he was a 3-year-old to after he got involved in gangs. A rap video including Russell and other gang members was played.

Even though he was involved in Boy Scouts, church and other extracurricular activities and had many positive male role models and mentors, her son was still led astray, Turner said.

Turner said signs of gang affiliation often include behavioral changes, changes in clothing color and style, photos of drugs and money on their social media accounts, tattoos and being disrespectful to authority.

During the second half of Saturday’s program, panelists from law enforcement agencies, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, the school system and the faith community talked about what they’re doing to keep gangs in check in Suffolk and steer young people away from gang involvement.

“If you have gangs in your community, you cannot live in a safe community,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Phil Ferguson said. “Gangs are our No. 1 priority.”

Ferguson talked about the task force his office has set up, the four prosecutors specifically trained to handle gang-related cases and the community outreach his office does.

“We try to educate and prevent crime from occurring,” he said.

Many of the panelists stressed the importance of community involvement.

“Gangs cannot thrive in a good community,” prosecutor Tom Shaia said. “We cannot do it without you. I am here to help you fight the problem with gangs.”

Mike Mullin, a prosecutor in Ferguson’s office and also a state delegate who represents part of Newport News and other localities, said ensuring available jobs and fighting drug addiction can help lead to less crime.

“They end up in a lifestyle that ends up in crime,” Mullin said of people who are addicted to drugs.

Dr. Deran Whitney, superintendent of Suffolk Public Schools, urged mentoring for young people.

“Mentoring really does work,” he said, pointing out a mentoring program run by local men including Albert Hill, Roshawn Holland and Domenick Epps. Feeling connected by means of extracurricular activities is also important, he said.

Sheriff E.C. Harris said his office’s program of outreach to elementary school students aims to engage young people early.

“I think we’re losing our children in elementary school,” he said. “When they get in middle school, sometimes it’s too late.”

And the Rev. Sylvia Copeland-Murphy, assistant pastor at Oak Grove Baptist Church, urged those in attendance not to forget the faith community. Her church holds a summer camp for at-risk children each year.

“The churches are the pillars of the community,” she said. “We have what it takes to make our community even better.”

Turner said she and her family hope to continue holding events like Saturday’s, regardless of whether they ever find out what happened to her son.