Sgt. George Norris stood at the front of the room, his badge dangling around his neck over his black T-shirt.
“If you don’t realize it, we have a gang problem in Prince George’s County,” he said.
But so does everyone else, he quickly added.
It was the second class of the Prince George’s County Citizens’ Police Academy, and Sgt. Norris was about to share what he had learned over the course of his 10 years with the gang unit.
He apologized before really delving into the content of the day’s lesson, in case we found any of the facts, photos or videos he was about to share offensive.
I’m not sure if anyone was offended, but most of what we learned was certainly disheartening. Sgt. Norris shared photos from Facebook and videos from YouTube that his unit pulled as evidence of gang activity. We watched as he flipped through images of children holding guns. One video showed a child, no older than two, with a gun holstered in his diaper. He packaged cocaine with his father, who then handed him a glass of liquor to try.
These children, Sgt. Norris explained, were raised gangsters. To them, the gang life is normal, and it’s difficult to convince them otherwise, he said.
And those not born into the gang life are recruited at an average age of 12 to 13 years old, he said.
It was a shocking lesson to learn for me, an admittedly naïve transplant from rural central Pennsylvania where we didn’t hear much about gangs. But then again, we don’t hear enough about gangs here, either, Sgt. Norris said.
This is despite the fact there are more than 300 identified gangs and crews in Prince George’s County, among them the Bloods, Crips, MS-13, and smaller, often leaderless neighborhood crews—which are dangerous gangs nonetheless, Sgt. Norris said.
Despite their prevalence, “gang” seems to be the four-letter word no one wants to talk about, he said.
When it comes to gangs, the most important thing we can do, Sgt. Norris said, is be aware.
Be the nosy parent, asking about your children's friends and their friends’ families. Be involved in your kids' activities; emphasize education in your household. Schedule regular family times, set curfews and know where your children are, he said.
Be a positive role model for your children, and celebrate their successes and accomplishments.
Give your children what they need—time, attention, love, discipline—he said, because a gang might try to replace that void if you don't.
As a community member, a neighbor, be the eyes and ears of the police department, he said. Be the one who’s always looking out the windows.
Watch for groups of people—men and women, girls and boys of every race, religion and sexual orientation—hanging out together, wearing the same colors and bandanas, making unique hand gestures. Even if they tie their shoes in a matching way, take note, he said.
But there has to be unlawful or criminal activity in order for it to be a gang.
Sgt. Norris defined a gang as three or more people who share a unique name or have identifiable marks or symbols (like tattoos, colors, clothing styles, hair styles, graffiti, etc.) who congregate on a regular basis and sometimes claim particular territory or a location. There’s an identifiable hierarchy and the group engages in social, unlawful or criminal activity to further the gang’s social or economic status.
Those who would like to contact the gang unit with information, or who want Sgt. Norris to make his presentation for your church group or school faculty, can do so by calling 301-454-8271.
Sgt. Norris is also providing a "Citizens Gang Training" from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 19 at the Center for Educational Partnership, 6200 Sheridan Street, Riverdale. The free training will offer a better understanding of gangs in Prince George's County and throughout the country, including gang indicators.