2012-12-27 / Front Page

Dangler calls for community response to drug, gang problems

NAACP official says arrests bring issues into open
BY KENNY WALTER
Staff Writer

Charges against 52 people, most from local towns, resulting from a widereaching, gang-related heroin sweep by the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office may force communities to finally confront the growing problem of gangs on their streets, a Long Branch community activist said last week.

“The main thing is to admit that we have the problem,” Lorenzo “Bill” Dangler, head of the Greater Long Branch Chapter of the NAACP, said in a Dec. 19 interview.

“It took way too long in our area to admit that we even have a gang problem.

“You can’t address the problem unless you admit you have it and that’s the main thing for me.”

Labeled “Operation Hats Off” by the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, the drug bust caught up 22 individuals with Long Branch addresses and others from local towns including West Long Branch, Oceanport, Rumson, Little Silver, Sea Bright, Red Bank, Tinton Falls, Eatontown and Atlantic Highlands.

Dangler, who also is president of the Long Branch Public School District Board of Education, said the arrests underscore the fact that gangs reach beyond the Long Branch borders.

“We are not the only community suffering from drugs and gangs, it’s not like we are living in a bubble here,” he said. “We need to all put our heads together and come up with ideas for how we can save our communities.”

The Prosecutor’s Office announced the arrests at a Dec. 17 press conference. Some of those arrested are members of a gang known as the Fruit Town Brims, a subset of the Bloods street gang, which authorities said is responsible for the distribution of significant quantities of heroin throughout Monmouth and Ocean counties.

At that time, 41 of the 52 defendants charged had been taken into custody.

Dangler, who last spring hosted a forum in Long Branch to address violence, said it would take a community effort to prevent younger children from joining gangs while also helping those who are already gang members.

“We certainly want to come at the younger children differently than trying to address those that are already in gangs and trying to get them out,” he said.

“We need to do it as a community, you can’t just say. ‘I’m going to take care of my part of town.’ We have to come together as a family and then come up with a solution.”

Dangler noted that drugs and gangs are no longer a problem impacting only one specific group.

“If you look at those who were allegedly guilty, I don’t think there was a dividing line between white, black, money in their pockets, working, not working,” he said. “I didn’t see a color line or something dividing them, so everyone has to come together to try to help.”

According to Dangler, the school district implements the DARE program and other educational programs to educate students about guns and drugs.

One of the issues that contributes to a high recidivism rate among gang members is the lack of support once someone is arrested.

“We should definitely start with the younger kids but you can’t just walk away from someone and say the heck with them,” Dangler said. “No matter how it turns out, when they come home you still have to help them with something. “Everybody does not want that type of life, some of them want to come back home and they definitely need jobs,” he added. “Jobs is an issue, everyone is not making a boatload of money selling drugs.”

Long Branch Councilwoman Joy Bastelli, who founded the community group United Neighbors, said in a Dec. 19 interview that church groups could take an active role in steering people away from gangs.

“I think our best hope is to change the inner man,” she said. “Children and young families would be better served getting involved in a faith community.

“I’ve learned that gangs provide a sense of belonging, a sense of family, and I would hope people of faith would step up and get involved with young families and provide a safe and healthy environment.”

She also credited current United Neighbors president Ronald Cox for bringing the National Night Out Against Crime to the city more than 10 years ago.

“That is a very good night because it helps children and young people meet and interact with police officers and firemen and first aid [volunteers] without being in an environment where they are being confronted for anything wrong,” she said.

“It helps kids know that police officers are really there and they care. It is a positive interaction.” Bastelli also said a bulked-up police force could prevent violence in the city.

“Back in the ’90s, United Neighbors started as a crime watch,” she said. “We had about 67 officers on the police force and back then they were very overworked and stretched to the limit.

“The town received huge grants from the federal government and we were able to hire 20 police officers,” she explained. “Little by little the police force got back to about 100 and we were in good shape. With the hiring freeze and the [budget] cap problems, we are down to under 80 officers.” Dangler, who has lived in Long Branch his entire life, doesn’t think the gang problem in 2012 is any worse than it has been in years past.

“I think people are paying more attention, I think law enforcement is cracking down,” he said. “Years ago when it was first brought up that we had an issue, we collectively as a county didn’t say we had an issue.

“By the time you admit you have a problem, it’s now an issue,” he added. “Now we know we have a problem — it’s how do we address this.”

Bastelli explained why she thinks gangs have spread beyond the city and into other area towns. “The perspective is when you see arrests happen it brings crime to the forefront and you become aware of it,” she said. “To me, the fact that they made these arrests even on a reduced crew [shows] they are still doing an excellent job.

“With the Internet and the electronic capabilities today, gang members don’t need to be in close proximity; they can communicate wherever they are,” she said. “There are gang members in every community and we would be naïve to think otherwise.”

With residents of several county towns included in the arrests, Dangler is hopeful this will bring people together to think of solutions.

“You can’t just say, I’m going to one part of town, or another part of town,” he said. “This thing has hit everybody.

“I hope that we can somehow come together on this thing. You’ll never solve this problem, but you can slow it down.”

According to the Prosecutor’s Office, the eight-month investigation, titled “Operation Hats Off” began last spring after the office received information regarding gang activity and heroin distribution occurring in the Shore area. During the investigation, members of the Fruit Town Brims and their conspirators orchestrated and/or personally sold approximately 200 bricks (10,000 bags) of heroin per week, including more than 1,000 bags of heroin to undercover detectives on dozens of occasions.

Overall, the criminal enterprise was responsible for the trafficking of more than 4,000 bricks (200,000 bags) of heroin during the course of the investigation, the Prosecutor’s Office said in a press release.

Contact Kenny Walter at
kwalter@gmnews.com.

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