HAZLETON – Two words: "Force multipliers."
Those are the two most important words state Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Twp., said he took away Thursday from the fourth in a series of "Operation GangUp" community discussions to help combat gang activity in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
The event's main speaker, Peter James "P.J." Jurack, chief of the FBI's Safe Streets and Gang Unit, had told the approximately 80 audience members in the Arthur Street Elementary School auditorium there are only 829 special agents in 164 gang task forces across the country.
"That's a Band-Aid on a gaping wound," Jurack said after noting that gangs are spreading to rural communities and operating not in just narcotic trafficking, but in everything from mortgage fraud to prostitution.
"We cannot do it alone, which is why we partner with our state and locals to have the maximum impact. Almost like a special forces group, we work as force multipliers to do as much as we can, whether it's on the local level, the state level or the federal level," Jurack said.
That theme of partnering to multiply the force or impact against organized street gang crime was restated and stressed in different ways by each speaker on the eight-member panel throughout the two-hour discussion, beginning with an introduction by U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta.
Barletta, R-Hazleton, said police began noticing gang activity in the city when he was mayor, and his first instinct was "to try to deal with this just through our police department, to try to keep this among ourselves and really not scare the residents or make it known that we were having a problem."
Barletta said he soon realized that was the wrong approach. After meeting with Department of Justice officials in 2005 to seek federal help, he realized "we needed a buy-in from the community," that parents, teachers, school officials and all members of the community would need to be educated on how to recognize gang activity and if their children, students and neighbors might be interacting with gangs.
"It takes community after community … all of our leaders, all of our parents and community to work together and recognize that we need to work with law enforcement … and that we do have a role," Barletta said.
Jurack outlined the FBI's National Gang Strategy, which he likened to the FBI's successful attack on the Italian mafia. He also described some tactics that have worked well in some communities, such as the use of civil injunctions – court orders banning certain groups from socializing in public in certain areas.
Police Chief Frank DeAndrea said reporting suspicious and suspected gang-related activity is of utmost importance, noting the department's anonymous tip line – 450-2080. Panel members said criminals typically don't retaliate against witnesses, and DeAndrea noted that witness intimidation is a serious crime.
Learn more about Operation GangUp at www.operationgangup.com.