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Harford County’s sheriff says his office has a handle on what was once an out-of-control, and largely unacknowledged, gang problem.

“We are in control, they are no longer in control,” Sheriff Jesse Bane said in an interview Wednesday about gangs in Harford County. “They roamed with almost complete independence five years ago. Now we’re constantly on them.”

Bane attributes the declining gang presence to a number of initiatives on the part of his office, as well as better communication within the sheriff’s office and between his agency and other police agencies.

He’s also pushing for passage of several anti-gang bills that have been introduced in the Maryland General Assembly, and was in Annapolis Thursday to offer his support.

From 2005, when the sheriff’s office began tracking gang activity, through Tuesday, 811 gang members and associates had been identified in the county.

Of those 811 identified, 488 were considered active as of Tuesday; 234 were full gang members, 254 were regarded as associates.

To be a gang member, someone must meet three of 12 criteria determined by the sheriff’s office, including admission to being in a gang, association with known gang members and attendance at gang functions. An associate meets up to two of the 12 criteria. An active gang member or associate is someone who has had contact with law enforcement within the last three years.

“There are only 488 of them who are out there we’re watching right now,” Bane said.

The 811 members is cumulative since the sheriff’s office started tracking gang activity in 2005; the number will likely start to decline this year, the sheriff said.

That number does not, however, include gang members who live elsewhere, like Baltimore City, but visit Harford to conduct their activities.

As for the 323 who are not active, and haven’t been seen in Harford for three years, there are multiple possibilities as to where they may have gone.

Some have probably relocated or moved away, some have died, some may have left the gang and some may be incarcerated longterm in a jail outside Harford County, Monica Worrell, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, said Thursday.

The 488 active gang members include anyone who is in jail, whether in Harford County Detention Center or elsewhere in Maryland who has been sentenced within the last three years. If their sentence was imposed more than three years ago and they were sent to a Maryland Division of Corrections facility, they are no longer considered active in Harford.

On any given day, about 10 percent of Harford’s gang population is in the Harford County Detention Center, Bane said. On Wednesday morning, 47 gang members were in the jail.

In the last three months, the number of active gang members has decreased, yet the sheriff’s office has added names to its cumulative list.

Thirteen known gang members were identified between Dec. 14, 2009, and Tuesday. During the same period, the number of active gang members has gone from 513 to 488.

The sheriff’s office has not kept a database on annual gang numbers.

Since he took office, Bane has implemented a number of initiatives to combat the gang problem, which was only grudgingly acknowledged by the previous sheriff.

‘In their face’

In addition to continuing and expanding the gang suppression unit, the sheriff’s office has created the Violent Street Crimes Unit and the HCDC Gang Intel Team. Surveillance cameras have been installed, and deputies are aggressive in drug enforcement and are gathering more intelligence than before.

“We are always in their face,” Bane said. “We know who they are, we know how they operate, we know how they think and we’re adjusting our strategies accordingly.”

The gang problem areas haven’t changed, Bane said.

“They’re pretty much the same as before. The nature of the community hasn’t changed, they’re communities that are distressed, at risk,” Bane said. “Until we address the other problems, gangs are going to be there.”

Those areas, he said, include Brookside Drive, Windsor Valley and Harford Square in Edgewood and Perrywood Gardens in Aberdeen.

“They don’t all live there, but that doesn’t mean they don’t go down where the problems are and hang out with fellow gang members,” Bane said.

People living in those communities, however, feel a little safer today than they did five years ago, Bane said.

“I sense a level of calm out in the community. People tell me the gang problem is under control, I hear that more often than not,” he said.

When he took office in 2006, Bane began holding town hall-style meetings in the Edgewood area. At his first meeting, people talked about gangs, violence, shootings, kids who can’t go outside to play, Bane said.

“They were very angry,” he said.

His last meeting was very pleasant, he said. Residents talked about traffic, kids playing in the middle of the street, “things that are going on in other communities,” he said.

“To go from in three years, a community that is angry to a community that is settled down, has a sense of calm, that says something about the mindset of the community,” Bane said.

Anti-gang legislation

The sheriff also supports an anti-gang bill that has been cross-filed in both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly.

Bane was scheduled to testify Thursday in favor of Senate Bill 517 in the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

He also testified at the hearing for House Bill 756 on March 2 in the Judiciary Committee. The House version is also known as the Maryland Gang Prosecution Act of 2010.

“The proposed legislation makes it possible to disband gangs and deter criminal activity, without interfering with the constitutionally protected rights of expression and association,” Bane wrote in the letter dated March 1 to the House committee. “Several nationally affiliated and local street gangs continue to grow and terrorize Maryland’s communities, schools and homes. The passage of Bill 756 would not only aid law enforcement in its efforts to address this critical public safety issue, but also prevents future victims of gang crime.”

Bane sent the same letter of support to the Senate committee.

The bill would remove the requirement that a specified group must be an ongoing association for it to be defined as a “criminal gang.”

The bill also alters the list of factors that people must have in common in order to be considered a criminal gang.

The definition of “criminal gang” was also altered to include specified felonies and misdemeanors as crimes that prove a pattern to convict someone as a member of a criminal gang.

The bill also allows for separate sentencing for the participation in a criminal gang under certain circumstances.

Harford Dels. Mary-Dulany James, J.B. Jennings, Susan McComas and Dan Riley have signed onto the House version of the bill, and Sen. Nancy Jacobs has signed onto the Senate version.

Three years ago, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Maryland Gang Prosecution Act of 2007, but Bane stated in his letter that the act was difficult to use for a number of reasons and did not provide law enforcement with the necessary tools to efficiently identify, investigate and prosecute criminal gang activity.

Aegis staff writer Rachel Konopacki contributed to this article.

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