SAVANNAH, Ga. (CN) – Sandwiched between two schools in a small, lush Savannah neighborhood, Cann Park residents feared going outside.
Until federal agents and Savannah Metro Police swept through the streets in March 2016 — the culmination of a six-month undercover operation — this quarter-of-a-square-mile neighborhood was plagued with gun fire, drug deals, and two feuding neighborhood gangs.
Relying on video and audio surveillance as well as confidential informants, authorities apprehended 22 members of the Cann Park Goons and the Fast Lane Gang, ranging in age from 19 to 43.
Federal prosecutors convicted all within a year, and the operation also took 43 guns off the streets, plus $188,000 worth of MDMA, heroin, weed and blow.
On Thursday, a crowd of about 300 senior citizens gathered at St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church in Savannah to learn how they can identify gang members and gang signs in the community, and what recourse is then available to them.
“This is the first time we’ve done a talk on gangs,” said Joyce Crowder-McBride, executive director of the Seniors and Law Enforcement Together Council. “Seniors themselves have been talking about it. They’ll ask, ‘How do we know if there’s a gang in our neighborhood? What are you doing to help mitigate the problem?’”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Gilluly Jr., who leads anti-gang operations for the Southern District of Georgia, was a keynote speaker Thursday at the council’s 18th annual breakfast and luncheon.
“You guys are the eyes and ears of this community; you can reach more people than I can,” said Gilluly. “Look at social media, graffiti, if you have a grandkid that’s wearing a blue shirt with a five-pointed star, sit him down and talk to him. … If something looks suspicious, report it. Be a role model.”
With a track record that includes prosecuting the Chatham County human-trafficking ring and the Gangster Disciple Operation, Gilluly’s task force work with local and federal agencies as part the national model Operation Ceasefire.
Chatham County prosecutors credit their version, End Gun Violence, with the 64 percent decrease in gun-involved incidents between February 2017 and February 2018.
In the same time period, District Attorney Meg Heap said in an email, Savannah also “saw a reduction of homicides from 53 to 35.”
Philip Wislar, supervisory special agent in the Savannah FBI office, touted the importance of the End Gun Violence program in a phone interview.
“Convicted felons come in and we want to tell them that their lives matter,” Wislar said. “The goal is to keep them from getting their hands on a gun and settling the score through violence; the underlying theme of the meetings is ‘You matter. We care about you. We want you to stay alive.”
Wislar also emphasized the role that youth mentorship programs play in reducing gang violence.
“In a lot of communities where I’ve lived and worked,” Wislar said, “many of these kids have care, structure, leadership, and mentoring when they’re in school. … It’s the time that comes after, when they’re not in these environments, when they’re back in the neighborhood. Some kids come from very traumatic home environments.”
Because many children join gangs for a sense of belonging or security, Wislar called it key to offer youth-mentorship programs.
“Mentoring programs, in my mind, is not only about developing leadership, accountability, and character traits in these younger kids, it’s about showing them they have a path to a variety of education and career options long term should they make good decisions,” said Wislar.
Savannah has chapters of all major gangs, including the Bloods, Crips, Gangster Disciples and Ghost Face Gangsters, as well as dozens of neighborhood gangs formed by people who live or were raised on the same streets.
In Savannah neighborhoods with higher crimes rates like Cann Park, gang members commit crimes in broad daylight and sell drugs in plain sight.
Since the Cann Park Operation, the neighborhood is doing better, Gilluly said, noting that violent crime in the neighborhood decreased 40 percent, aggravated assaults with guns dropped 75 percent, and “shots fired” dropped 50 percent.
Gilluly broke down various stereotypes Thursday in his pitch to the seniors group, explaining that members of a gang may not all be the same ethnicity, or all male.
What does hold true, however, is socioeconomic status.
Gilluly said most gang members he observes in federal court have dropped out of high school, have a history of smoking marijuana, and come from broken homes.
FBI statistics from this past January showed that Savannah saw a 7.3 percent drop in violent crime last year.
“We measure success not only by arresting the person committing the crime, but by dismantling the entire criminal organization,” Gilluly said in an email after the event. “Statistics often demonstrate drastic crime reductions. At a minimum, we know we protect the community by taking the violent criminals off of the streets and behind bars for as long as we can.”
Wislar echoed this point. “Prevention efforts are never going to mitigate the gang problem 100 percent,” he said. “Can we shape the depth or breadth of gangs in the future? Yes, we probably will have an impact.”