DPD arrests 10 teens for gang activities

Police Chief Gary Sparks

Douglasville Police arrested 10 members and associates of a criminal street gang on robbery, aggravated battery and other assault charges resulting from a Jan. 2, 2021 incident at Arbor Place Mall.

More arrests may be forthcoming as they work to identify others involved, according to Lt. Ken Winklepleck, of DPD’s Special Operations division.

Police responded to the mall following reports of a large fight taking place outside of the movie theater entrance, Winklepleck said. The ensuing investigation revealed that the incident was gang-related.

“We were able to identify 10 of the individuals involved in this assault and robbery,” said Police Chief Gary Sparks. “They are presently waiting on disposition of their charges, so the techniques rendered that led to their arrests show that the Douglasville Police Department was able to successfully put the pieces of the puzzle together.”

Of those arrested, eight are from Douglas County and two are from Louisiana, according to the investigation. Charges have been taken out on the two and they are awaiting extradition, Sparks said.

The gang has been in existence in the county since some of the teens attended middle school.

“The investigation revealed that this criminal street gang was formed several years ago by youths attending Yeager Middle School,” said Winklepleck, who added that the founders and members at the time were as young as 12 years old. “Now, a few years later, representing the same gang and carrying that same gang mentality, this group has transitioned legally into a criminal street gang by committing serious crimes against the community in furtherance of their gang.”

Georgia law defines what constitutes gang-related activity, said Det. Joseph Dwyer, of the Special Operations division.

“The State of Georgia has adopted laws against gang activity,” Dwyer said, explaining that citizens can familiarize themselves with state gang laws by looking up Georgia Street Gang and Terrorism Prevention Act” or O.C.G.A. 16-15-1. “In essence, this statute defines a criminal street gang as a group of three or more people who share a common identifier to identify with or represent the gang who then commit certain crimes in furtherance of the gang,” he said. “Furthermore, the existence of the gang can be proven by evidence of a common name, common identifying signs, symbols, tattoos and other distinguishing characteristics common to gang culture.”

By definition, this applies to those involved in this case.

“The signs of this particular gang’s existence and the mindset of its members were evident before this latest incident,” Winklepleck said. “The police investigation revealed that prior to the Jan. 2, 2021 incident, some of the gang members had been posting pictures and videos of their activities and their gang affiliation on their social media pages.”

He and Sparks advise parents to be more attentive to social media pages and posts, as well as who their children associate and hang out with.

“Parents and/or guardians must be vigilant in keeping up with their kid’s social media,” Winklepleck said. “Some parents of those arrested in this case had no idea their kid was associated with a gang or any named group, for that matter. Had they been aware of what their kids were posting on social media, recognized what they were seeing was possibly gang-affiliated behavior, and then intervened, this incident may have never happened.”

Sparks agreed that parents need to watch for signs to see what their kids are doing. “They also need to watch their dress and how they act,” he said. “They need to watch for subtleties in their dress that could be a sign of gang affiliation or in their actions on social media that can be an indication of gang involvement.”

However, he admits that this may be harder than it sounds. “When these kids get out of their parents’ sight, it’s a ‘Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde’ thing,” he said, acknowledging that kids may act differently when they are away from their parents’ supervision.

The department’s goal is to stop and eliminate the growth of gangs and gang violence in the city of Douglasville, Sparks said. The city experienced its first gang-related shooting in 2007 and, in response, DPD began to proactively go after criminal street gangs committing crimes here. To date, DPD has arrested dozens and helped prosecute over 100 gang members, according to Sparks, who said that not all of them were from Douglas County but came here and committed crimes.

Sparks said officers receive annual gang training from locations all over the country to stay informed on gang culture.

“We have officers who are members of the Georgia Gang Investigators Association,” he said. “It is very necessary to make sure our department is trained in investigating gang-motivated crimes. And because gang charges come with serious consequences, we take great care in applying these charges only to those who meet the criteria set by the Georgia Street Gang and Terrorism Prevention Act.”

In addition to investigating and apprehending gang members, DPD works equally as hard at gang prevention. The Youth Against Violence program, founded by Sparks and Winklepleck in 2007, is a means of doing that, Sparks said. The program, which meets Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for eight weeks, offers classes and tools designed to intervene and direct teens in the right direction. Many of the participants are ordered by courts and schools and some are enrolled by parents or guardians who want them to attend. The program has been on hiatus since December due to the COVID-19 pandemic but Sparks expects to resume the program this spring.

“Charging young people is the last resort,” Sparks said. “We want to get them on the front end with Youth Against Violence and educate young men and women about the downfalls of being involved in criminal activity.

DPD will hold a town hall meeting on gangs via Zoom on March 9, from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.