Fighting Gang Bangers In The Land of The Rich

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Palm Beach County -- known for its beautiful scenery, warm breezes, opulent mansions and vacationing tourists -- also has a dangerous underbelly: a growing gang problem.

The seemingly idyllic Florida county is home to more than 200 gangs with more than 3,000 members. Palm Beach County had 101 homicides last year, 26 percent higher than the previous year and the highest since 1994.

In December, a suspected gang member was shot in a crowded shopping mall on Christmas Eve. The aftermath of the shooting, caught on a bystander's cell phone camera, showed shoppers frantically trying to save the man's life and failing.

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A week later, on New Year's Day, an 8-month-old was killed in a car seat as more than 30 shots were fired from an AK-47 in a drive-by shooting.

Terrorism at a Local Level

Sheriff Ric Bradshaw of the Palm Beach County Police Department describes the gang threat in his community as one that has "escalated." He says what were once sporadic incidents of violence have become commonplace.

"There's no way that these type of things should happen in a setting of a mall. It's bad enough when they happen on a side street," Bradshaw said.

Bradshaw says gangs use violence to gain territory, intimidate competition, and, ultimately, to make money.

His department routinely faces enormous firepower on the streets they patrol, and a majority of the shootings are from assault rifles and AK-47s, which are easily hidden from plain view.

"Really, when you boil it down, this is terrorism on a local level," Bradshaw said.

Police say the county is in the midst of a fierce turf war between 10 major gangs to control drugs and prostitution.

Bradshaw's office took a stand against the area's growing gang threat: It facilitates a violent-crime task force that works in cooperation with other law enforcement agencies in the county.

Bradshaw says that the size of the county or city is irrelevant, and that as long as gangs have the opportunity to gain a stronghold and flourish within the community, they will.

Lt. Mike Wallace, an officer with the county gang unit, says that most of the county's shootings are gang-related, and that they see anywhere "from 30 to 100 rounds fired."

"Most of that is warring within the gang. There's friction within the gang. … Friction within the gang leadership," Wallace said. "Many of these shootings, it's for respect. The more violent a person is, the more respect they get in the gang."

"Violence is the tool for intimidation and elimination -- and they use it indiscriminately," Bradshaw said.

"Make no mistake about this: This is organized crime," Bradshaw said. "It's about the money. It's about the territory."

Residents Take Matters Into Their Own Hands

Many residents have had enough.

In response to the growing gang problem, police are saturating high crime areas and targeting locations where they think gang violence might erupt. During roll call meetings at the sheriff's headquarters, gangs are often the No. 1 topic on the agenda.

Police are trying to strengthen ties with communities to combat the gang violence. Deputy Sheriff Gregory Newborn fears young people are beginning to mimic gang violence.

Newborn responded to a call by a father whose 13-year-old son was being beaten and harassed in a ganglike manner daily. Both parents worked jobs with shift schedules that didn't allow them to be home in the evening when their son arrived from school, leaving the boy with no protection.

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