Prince George's County has the fifth-largest gang membership on the East Coast, with the number of members more than doubling since 2008, according to a new FBI report.
With 7,131 known gang members, Prince George's ranked behind Miami-Dade County and three counties in the Newark, N.J., area -- Essex, Hudson and Union counties.
And they are violent: the FBI attributes 16 of the homicides committed in Prince George's this year to national gangs like MS-13.
The county's gang membership has soared from between 500 and 2,500 gang members in Prince George's in 2008, the FBI said. Police count 310 gangs and crews, according to Lt. Jennifer Barrett, commander of the county's gang unit.
Prince George's is leading a rise in gang membership and gang-related violence across the Washington area as neighborhood "crews" are expanding and national gangs are moving into suburban and rural areas to recruit and expand their drug distribution territories.
|The top ten|
|Essex County, N.J. (Newark)||17,094|
|Miami-Dade County, Fla.||16,684|
|Hudson County, N.J. (Newark)||7,909|
|Union County, N.J. (Newark)||7,530|
|Prince George's County||7,131|
|Polk County, Fla. (Tampa)||5,583|
|Hillsborough County, Fla. (Tampa)||4,788|
|Suffolk County, N.Y. (New York)||4,419|
|Suffolk County, Mass. (Boston)||4,151|
|Wake County, N.C. (Raleigh)||3,918|
Among the fastest-growing national gangs are MS-13 and 18th Street, both of which are present in Maryland, Virginia and the District.
The gangs seem to be recruiting more heavily than in the past, particularly among younger age groups, said Sgt. George Norris in the Prince George's County Police's gang unit. Norris said he has seen youth as young as elementary-school age participating in gang activities.
"Culturally for kids it's kind of the trending thing to be a gang member right now," said Norris, pointing to popular clothing and music that centers around gang-related themes.
Younger members are also less likely to get as severe sentences if caught, said Norris, making them desirable for doing gangs' "dirty work."
Many officials attribute the growth in gang membership in both Montgomery and Prince George's counties to neighborhood "crews," as well.
Although national gangs such as MS-13 and the Bloods have been responsible for local murders and other violent crimes, those incidents -- including armed robberies, homicides and carjackings -- are more likely to be committed by local crews than national gangs in Prince George's, said Andy Wade and Jon Trimble, supervisors of the FBI's Cross-Border Task Force, which targets violence committed by gangs and crews in Prince George's and the District.
Unlike national gangs, street crews don't report to a leader thousands of miles away, and they focus their criminal efforts in a particular area, Wade said. "The idea behind a neighborhood crew is the neighborhood."
Between both national and local gang expansion, Montgomery County saw a 25 percent growth in its gang population to 1,381 members and a 59 percent increase to 51 gangs from 2009, according to the county's latest gang assessment.
Norris cautioned that the increase in gang membership and crimes may be caused by police paying more attention to gangs than in the past. Both Montgomery and Prince George's police have bolstered their gang units in the last year.
The stepped-up enforcement is prompting some gangs to become more cautious about flashing signs or wearing their gang's colors, Lt. Daniel Hess of the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force said.
Hess said the gang presence is rising in Northern Virginia, though he couldn't estimate how many gang members there are. Fairfax County had 1,768 gang members, according to the FBI.
Metropolitan Police Department spokeswoman Gwen Crump said she needed a Freedom of Information Act request to release the information. The District did not provide gang information to the FBI for its most recent report, though the 2009 FBI report showed between 2,500 and 3,499 gang members in the city.