Chamber luncheon talks law enforcement

Published 11:30 am Tuesday, October 31, 2023

The LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce held its October State of Community Luncheon on Monday focusing on public safety in Troup County.

The luncheon featured a panel of law enforcement representatives throughout Troup County including Sheriff James Woodruff, Major Dale Strickland of the LaGrange Police Department, West Point Police Chief Kevin Carter, and Captain Marcus Rakestraw of the Hogansville Police Department.  The panel hosted by Chamber Board Member Mike Gilmartin was also joined by Jose Ramirez, president of the Georgia Gang Investigators Association.

Much of the discussion revolved around gang activity within Troup County. Ramirez said that many counties in Georgia are going through a gang crisis. 

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“I think the word crisis has a different meaning to everybody,” Ramirez said. “Your level of crisis could be one thing where somebody looks at it and says ‘Oh, that’s not a problem.’ But you’ve got to look at the individual community. … The presence of gang activity, or in its criminal elements within your community, is a crisis in itself,” Ramirez said.

“You had a case pending against a juvenile that I believe was 12 or 13 years old that killed somebody. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s a crisis. When you have kids that are committing adult crimes. That’s a crisis. These kids are connected to gangs. That’s a crisis. I’m not saying that you’ve got thousands and thousands of gang members, but if you have gang members and they’re committing crimes, that is a crisis at any level,” he said.

Ramirez said that LaGrange isn’t alone with its gang problem, saying 159 out of 159 counties in Georgia have gang activity. Some will deny it though, he said, either out of ignorance or wanting to project a better image of their community.

Woodruff said that Troup County’s gang issues are undeniable. He said they know because the inmates and gangs make it clear.

“When you first come into jail, we ask are you gang affiliated? If you say no, we put you in the back, and we soon learn if you really are not [in a gang] because you’re coming back up the hall with a split skull. After all, they know if you’re in a gang. A lot of people are afraid to admit that they are,” Woodruff said.

Woodruff said separating gang members within the jail has sometimes been difficult due to capacity constraints, especially during COVID.

“Our jail is in capacity at 600. This morning, we had 567 people in jail waiting to go to court. So we’re 30 people away from full capacity. Imagine that when we had COVID, and we had to separate sick inmates from well inmates in addition to keeping the gangs separated from each other. It was a very challenging time.”

Woodruff estimated that at least 75 percent of the inmates within the Troup County Jail have some gang affiliation.

Strickland said they have about 10 gangs operating in LaGrange right now. He noted that there has been some growth in gang activity, but the alarming thing is the gang members are getting younger.

“There’s some growth. We average about 20 criminal cases per year where we charged with the gang charge in addition to whatever other charge that they were in trouble for,” Strickland said. “There has been some growth, but it has not been significant. The significant thing that we’ve seen is the reduction in the age of the folks that are involved. These folks will be younger and younger.”

Strickland said another alarming change LPD has seen is juveniles’ capability to deal with conflict.

“Their answer to conflict is not what it used to be. They don’t go out and go to blows in the yard,” Strickland said. “They communicate in just a matter of seconds over the internet through social media and disrespect for one another and that turns instead of blows to shooting one another with guns.”

Ramirez said that many have a misconception that these gangs are not organized.

“We do have nationally base gangs here in the state of Georgia and your community,” Ramirez said.

There are gangs in Georgia that are getting their orders from North Carolina, New York, New Jersey, Chicago or California, he said.

“You may not see what you would commonly see with the mafia, but they’re well organized. These kids are connected,” Ramirez said

Ramirez said that the solution to gangs isn’t law enforcement; it’s prevention and intervention.

“We’re never going to win because we’re never going to suppress our way out of this,” Ramirez said, explaining that police gang suppression doesn’t address the root of the issue. “What is the root cause? The root cause is a breakup at home.”

Kids need discipline, love and support. When they’re missing that at home and the community doesn’t step up, kids are going to seek it from gangs, Ramirez said.