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Parents angry after finding children's names on police 'gang lists'

Published Aug. 9, 2012

LARGO — Letitia Lyles had heard about the lists for years but hadn't seen one until early April.

Lyles, 44, was talking to a friend whose son had just gotten probation, and the judge told him to stay away from gang members. The court gave him a "no contact list" with the names and birth dates of more than 120 members and associates of the "119 Boys" gang, a.k.a the "Young Souljas."

Lyles' 16-year-old son, Francisco Hernandez, was on the list. So was his 16-year-old cousin, Jacorrie Riley. Neither boy had ever been arrested and, Lyles said, neither was involved with gangs. But both were on a list prosecutors use to seek higher bail amounts and tougher sentences from judges.

Lyles made copies of the list. She passed it around. People read it and got angry. They made calls and sent emails. A local chapter of the NAACP got involved. Eventually, someone called a meeting.

Tuesday night more than 50 people, all but a few of them black, showed up at the Greater Ridgecrest YMCA. They heard eight representatives of law enforcement agencies, all but two of them white, tell them why they keep these lists and how they use them.

The representatives — from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, Largo Police Department and Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office — said the gang affiliation lists are tools for tracking local gang activity. They are similar to those kept by scores of law enforcement agencies across the country, according to a 2011 article in the St. Thomas Law Review that criticized how the lists are used in the criminal justice system.

The people in the crowd Tuesday would agree with the author of that article. They called the lists racial profiling, and unnecessary. Many of them said there are no gangs in Largo.

"Ma'am, I really wish we did not have gang activity in Largo," Detective Brandon Harvey of the Sheriff's Office told one woman during the meeting. "Unfortunately, the truth is, we do."

• • •

Florida Statute 874.03 states the rules for how someone may be added to a gang affiliation list. A criminal gang, according to state law, is a "formal or informal ongoing organization, association, or group that has as one of its primary activities the commission of criminal or delinquent acts."

As the men from law enforcement explained to the crowd Tuesday, this doesn't just mean well-known national gangs like the Crips and Bloods. This also means neighborhood gangs with flimsy organizational structure.

In Largo, according to police, this means the "Young Souljas" or "119 Boys," a group they say wears a lot of black, has specific hand signals and engages in crimes like dealing drugs and fighting other gangs in their territory around 119th Street, in the predominantly black Ridgecrest area just west of Largo.

The 119 Boys is one of more than 30 gangs Largo police keep lists of — lists that now have more than 500 names. State law spells out several criteria for adding someone to these lists. If you meet one of the criteria, you're labeled an associate of the gang; more than one, you're a member.

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Among the criteria:

• If you're identified as a gang member by a parent or guardian.

• If you adopt the style of dress of a gang.

• If you use hand signals identified with a gang.

• If you associate with one or more known gang members.

Jacorrie Riley got on the list, according to Largo police records, because police found 11 pictures of him online displaying 119 Boys hand signals, and because a police officer saw him once with other gang associates, and because he once ran away from a sheriff's deputy while accompanied by another gang member.

"It's hurtful," said Riley's mother Therese Baldin, 35, about her son's inclusion. "It's disheartening how many of those boys are on this list. You're talking about half the neighborhood."

That gang member Riley was with? His cousin, Francisco Hernandez, who also is on the list because police found pictures of him making hand signals, and because he was once in a car with other gang members when the car was shot at, according to Largo police.

Hernandez has been arrested since his mother discovered the list in April. On June 15 he was stopped twice, in two different cars, according to Largo police, and both times there was marijuana and a firearm in the car. Hernandez faces a charge of misdemeanor marijuana possession.

Sgt. Mike Bruno is in charge of Largo's problem-oriented policing unit. A rise in home invasions, drug sales and shootings started about three years ago, Bruno says, and prompted his unit's focus on gangs in Largo. Bruno has white gangs and black gangs in his database and emphasizes that his officers are careful before adding a name.

"We take it seriously," he said Wednesday. "We don't just say, 'Hey, you're a gang member because he's your cousin.' "

When it comes to juveniles, Bruno said, the system is designed to help them avoid trouble. He can track who is hanging out with whom and has evidence for parents that their kids are traveling the wrong path.

But for adults, prosecutors use the lists to get higher bail amounts and longer prison sentences. That doesn't happen often, said Vance Arnett, director of community programs in the State Attorney's Office. Prosecutors need to prove gang membership to a judge before a harsher sentence can be imposed.

But Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger doesn't like how the lists are used to set higher bail.

"You have no way of knowing it (gang member status) is accurate," Dillinger said. "If the police say it, that's it."

• • •

Some of the people at Tuesday's meeting plan to ask Largo police and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to remove names from their gang lists. If there are names erroneously on the list, agency representatives said, they'll be removed.

Some critics plan to look for help from a higher office. Adrian West Sr., 42, a cook from Largo, wants to take his complaints to local legislators.

"They don't make the laws," he said of the officials who spoke. "They enforce them. You have to change that law."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or whobson@tampabay.com.


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