Arlington police chief says it takes more than jails to fight gangs

ARLINGTON -- Jail isn't enough to keep Arlington's nearly 1,000 documented gang members from causing trouble, and it isn't enough to detour the city's youth from entering a life of crime, Police Chief Theron Bowman told members of the Arlington City Council on Tuesday.

Bowman outlined a few prevention and intervention strategies being developed by Arlington and surrounding cities to combat gang activity and youth violence, most of which focus on keeping kids off the streets and in the classroom.

"Today's truant can very well be tomorrow's gang member," Bowman said.

The recent shooting death of an armed 18-year-old high school student during a street fight has stirred concerns about gangs in Arlington neighborhoods. Last year, officers worked nearly 3,500 hours of grant-funded overtime fighting the city's 40 known gangs, some with members still in school, police said.

But while Bowman said that "every gang member in jail is one fewer that can create problems in the neighborhoods," he cautions that suppression isn't the only answer.

The key is community involvement, Bowman said, whether it's a faith-based group providing positive activities for youth or people calling 911 to report suspicious activity.

"Finger-pointing and blaming others will do nothing to resolve the challenges we face. Every resident needs to try to understand the correlates of this gang phenomena and then commit to taking action before the shooting starts," he said.

Fighting truancy

Under the new initiative "Our Communities, Our Kids," Arlington, Mansfield, Kennedale and Grand Prairie school and city officials are working with service agencies, churches and other nonprofits to reduce youth crime and violence through intervention and prevention services.

The Police Department has also recently begun working with the Arlington and Mansfield school districts to identify and check on chronically truant students. As part of the initiative, police officers will visit the students' homes and speak with parents and guardians about the ramifications of consistently skipping school.

Truancy is a Class C misdemeanor, but parents and guardians could face tougher penalties if the state finds they are neglecting their children.

The city and school district are also considering a program at certain elementary schools to work with families to identify the causes of truancy and find solutions, Bowman said. School officials report that they've seen truancy start as early as age 5.

"Parents absolutely must take the time to know what their young people are doing and don't be so inclined to be defensive when others indicate there might be a problem with their child," he said.

Need for officers

Bowman also talked to the council about the need to hire more officers.

Bowman said the department has a shortage of patrol officers because the city canceled an academy class last year during budget cuts. It would cost an estimated $2 million to hire and train enough officers to fill the 24 to 30 positions that are vacant because of retirements or officers taking other jobs.

The council would have to approve funding for the additional academy. Three academy classes are already scheduled for this year, and if the additional class is not added, filling vacant positions will take years.

"We're not critical yet," Bowman said.

SUSAN SCHROCK, 817-390-7639