There are more than 200 gangs operating in the metropolitan Houston area, and the minority community has reason for concern. Blacks and Hispanics make up 90 percent of gang members, and many belong to gangs that thrive on criminal activity.
The community, however, can help keep its families and neighborhoods safe by putting a stop to Houston's gang activity, and the crime and violence that often accompanies it. One way is by submitting anonymous tips online to stophoustongangs.org, while becoming more educated about the problem.
The brainchild of members of the Houston-area Multi-Agency Gang Task Force (MAGTF), stophoustongangs.org has taken a sizeable bite out of gang-related crime in Houston and surrounding areas, and offers a bevy of useful information geared toward parents, educators and youth.
Along with information on gangs operating in the metropolitan Houston area, the site provides information on gang initiation tactics, gang vernacular, warning signs of possible gang activity, prevention services offered by various local agencies, and a list of things communities can do to curb gang activity - of which Houston has an alarming amount.
Program organizers believe the website's impact has room to grow. The overall objective of stophoustongangs.org is to disrupt and dismantle the most significant criminal gangs in Houston and the surrounding area, a lofty vision broken down into two main parts.
"The website is unique in that it has two goals: to educate the public about gangs so they can recognize their activities and the signs in their own children signaling potential gang involvement," said FBI Special Agent Shauna Dunlap.
"The second goal is to provide a way for residents to anonymously report any potential or committed gang related crimes or activities from the comfort and safety of their homes, without fear of retaliation." Dunlap said the very real fear of a person's name showing up on a police report after reporting suspicious activity, or the danger of being targeted by neighborhood gangs, or gang members in their own family proved to be a huge deterrent to many who wanted to notify police.
That fear, and the desire to provide the public with a gang information education vehicle that operated 24/7, served as the impetus for stophoustongangs.org. "During the monthly meetings of the MAGTF, we had this idea of a 24-hour tip line, an 800 number. This idea evolved as we realized more and more people are online. Thus, the site was born," said Dunlap.
And it's been effective. "In terms of tips, we get a little bit of everything, not just gang stuff - robberies, prostitution, thefts," said HPD Lt. Craig Williams who serves as one of the efforts chief organizers. "The site started out with a bang about two years ago, died off a little, and has since been rejuvenated."
"The website has been working. It has a tracker that lists the number of leads we've received - 1,389 tips - and the 316 arrests that have been made directly attributable to those tips," said Dunlap, who along with Williams, have noticed the tips received are getting better, with information that can lead to arrests.
Dunlap says the site will soon reach 200,000 visitors. According to Williams, HPD and other law enforcement agencies document gangs using a gang tracker database with each run-in with a gang member.
"We're approaching roughly 20,000 gangsters in Houston and surrounding areas," said Williams, emphasizing that the issue of gangs is not related to any one racial or economic demographic.
"No neighborhood is immune to gang activity. We have gangs in the suburbs, in rural areas on the outskirts of the city. Anyone is susceptible to becoming a gang member," said Williams, who urges parents to keep abreast of their children's activities, and to educate themselves on gangs in their area.
Nationally, there are approximately 1.4 million gang members belonging to more than 33,000 gangs. "Sixty-to-80 percent of all crimes committed in a given area are attributed to gangs," said Dunlap, "and 60 percent of all gang members will be dead or in prison by the age of 20." To fortify the website's impact, a new offering was added to the information bullets and revealing videos on every gang-related subject imaginable. A new "Fugitive of the Week" is posted on the site every Thursday listing the individual's height, weight, aliases, and crimes, along with a mug shot with the intent of removing yet another gang member off Houston streets.
Williams believes the site also encourages more effective prevention at the front end. "Older kids recruit the younger kids into gangs, so any kid can be solicited if you don't pay attention to what your kids are doing. This happens in middle-class and poor families. "So look at the website and educate yourself about particular gangs in your area, and about what you can do to stop your child from becoming a gang member. And if you see, know or suspect a gang crime, report it," he said