By Russ Lay on January 28, 2013
When word of two large fights and a stabbing began to circulate last year, public statements from law enforcement confirmed that at least some of the people involved were gang members.
Shortly thereafter, police, in conjunction with organizations such as the P.T.A. and the League of Women Voters, began to conduct public meetings to inform residents about the presence of gangs in Dare County and local efforts to contain them.
In the comments section of the Voice and other local and social media, reactions ranged from fear, to support of police actions, to skepticism.
Some readers felt gang activities had been covered up to protect the tourist industry. Others felt the gang problem was being hyped, perhaps by police looking for more funding and manpower.
We sat down with Dare County Sheriff Doug Doughtie and Capt. Charlie Nieman of the Dare County Sheriff’s Office to talk about gangs and how serious the threat really is on the Outer Banks.
We also received the views of two local police chiefs: Kevin Brinkley of Nags Head and Gary Britt of Kill Devil Hills.
When asked if there was an attempt by police to cover up information on gang activity and some of the violence that took place last summer, Doughtie said: “I don’t think that’s the case at all.”
He pointed to the public meetings on gangs and said local police officers were open in discussing gang activity in Dare County, including some of the violent outbreaks.
“I attended the first public meeting in Kill Devil Hills and even though we all work closely together, I was impressed with how well these officers have worked their way into the gang system in a big way,” he said.
Doughtie said the topic of gangs here has been an educational process for the public, nightclub owners and the media. He believes communication among all of these groups will continue to improve.
And what about the fights? Were they gang-related?“Often we don’t know exactly what starts a fight at a certain bar,” he said. “It can be two guys arguing, two women or groups from different counties or schools. But once the fight starts, it seems like everyone from everywhere gets involved, including some who have definite gang affiliations.”
How do they know?
“These are people that have been arrested before, and through that process or their activities in the prison system, we know the people who are in gangs,” Nieman said.
“We work closely with other towns, such as Elizabeth City and we have excellent working relationship with federal agencies.”
Added Doughtie: “We have photos, we know their associations and we monitor social media sites like Facebook, where gang members make their presence known. The local ALE (Alcohol Law Enforcement) agents are also pretty hard-nosed about gang activity, and they know who the players are also.”
Our discussion then turned to the balance between efforts to inform the public while not overstating the problem or creating unnecessary fear.
We asked Sheriff Doughtie, simply: “Does Dare County have a gang problem?” which led to a slightly more complex answer.
“Yes, I think we do have a gang problem, a certain element of activity in the drug trade. It’s driven by drugs and money, and when gangs know drugs can sell for more in Dare County than Elizabeth City, it’s just good business sense that draws them here.”
The public meetings have included information about colors and other markings favored by gangs.
“I don’t want people to think there’s 25 gangs with 10 members each and 250 members living here. And if you see a group of teenagers walking with red bandanas or a pant leg hiked up, are they ‘wannabes’ or the real members?
“The real gang members aren’t walking, they’re driving better cars than I do.”
Nieman described the dilemma in more detail.
“If you go to any town today that has a major gang problem and asked them to look back twenty years ago, when there were only a handful of known gang members, would they do things differently? You can’t stick your head in the sand, you’ve got to do something now.”
The dilemma for law enforcement is how to communicate this to the public in a balanced fashion. There are gang members living here and doing business locally. Their numbers are small, but on weekends, out-of-town members are drawn to the nighttime entertainment at Outer Banks venues.
If law enforcement downplays the budding problem, it could grow right under our noses.
On the other hand, Dare’s gang problem isn’t the stuff of television police dramas. The two widely publicized fights were just that, two fights. And they took place at times when most of us, visitors and locals, had called it a night.
“The times and places you and I go out to eat or move around town are not the times and places these fights have taken taken place,” Doughtie said.
The bulk of gang activity is immersed in drug sales, largely unseen by the average person.
So it is unlikely that most locals or tourists will come face-to-face with or even be aware of gang activity.
Next: We’ll look at why violence has occurred at bars and what local police departments are doing about it.