EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is based on events during the Bradenton Herald's ride-along with the Manatee County Sheriff's Tactical Gang Unit on Feb. 19, 2013.
MANATEE -- Three unmarked cars and one undercover SUV pull up to the curb at a house in Palmetto.
A group of kids hanging out near a vehicle parked in the driveway scatter when the Manatee County Sheriff's Tactical Gang Unit steps into the yard.
The smell of burning marijuana mingles with the cool February air. Detective Brad Johnson pulls the flashlight
from his belt, shining it through the vehicle's windows. He looks under the car and in the grass: nothing.
"I smell it, though," De-tective Patty Hetrick affirms.
Near the porch, Detective Leon Pollock talks with some of the kids, asking their names and how they're doing in school. He tells them a story about Michael Jordan.
"My high school was his arch enemy," he says, trying to establish a rapport with the youngsters, something the gang unit does every night.
"We go out and hit the streets, make contact with youth," said Sgt. Chris D'Agostino. "Some are still good kids. Some are gang members. We make arrests if needed, refer them to community organizations and do curfew checks."
Curfew checks are on the list tonight -- eight juveniles who are documented gang members, associates or at-risk. They're on probation and that means they have to be at home by 8 p.m., or in the company of a parent or guardian.
The unit usually conducts one or two random checks a night, and once a month they try to dedicate a couple of hours to see as many kids as possible.
Many of the juveniles are on probation for drug-related offenses, usually involving marijuana, or other petty crimes.
Detectives continue talking with the kids at the residence, trying to figure out the location of a boy on their list.
"He's out with his homeboys," one girl says.
"He knows he has a curfew, right?" Hetrick asks.
A few minutes later, the boy and his mother arrive. She isn't happy.
"Don't y'all know how embarrassing this is for y'all to show up in my neighborhood?" she yells.
"You can tell right there she won't help," D'Agostino observes quietly. "A majority of parents do work with us. They'll call and say if their kid misses curfew."
Pollock speaks with the mother and juvenile for awhile. Photos of him flashing gang signs were found on Facebook, so the Gang Unit decided to establish communication with the family.
He's not in trouble this time, though. The detectives cannot violate his probation because there is no proof he wasn't with his mother the entire time. The unit will keep an eye on the home where so many kids were hanging out on a school night without adult supervision.
The detectives walk back to their line of vehicles, discussing where to go next.
That was their third stop of the night and they have several more to make, starting just after 8 and continuing until about 10:30 p.m.
"Most of them are around it so much, it falls into place as a way of life. It's tough when you're young and you have no way out," D'Agostino said. "If they're not home, they are out causing trouble."
The first child on the list for curfew checks is on home detention for possession of marijuana. He comes to the door and explains he's taking virtual classes, translating the conversation for his parents who speak Spanish.
At the next home, a boy's father answers the door. A young girl peeks through the blinds of a window, waving and smiling at the detectives.
"He's next door. Is that all right? I'm sorry," the man says, walking detectives to a nearby residence.
"After 8 p.m., he's got to be with you," Johnson explains. "He was supposed to be home with a responsible adult. I thought on Friday you were explained this. If you leave the house, make sure he's here."
The boy, whose older brother is a documented gang member, returns home.
"We'll have to look into the case to decide if we should write up a violation," D'Agostino said. "We have to verify; the dad said he had no idea. It only works as well as the parents let it."
Key areas saturated
On the way to the fourth stop, the detectives communicate over the radio, spotting gang graffiti on several road signs.
Lights and a television are on in the home, but no one comes to the door.
"I can hear them walking," Hetrick remarks. "They don't feel like having a chat."
While driving to Rubonia, D'Agostino voices sympathy for people living in neighborhoods overrun by gangs.
"Those are the people I feel sorry for," he says, pointing to a couple of houses. "They're older. They bought these homes a long time ago, and now the communities have deteriorated beyond belief, and there's no way to move out."
Spirits are uplifted at the fifth home, where a girl's mother explains how well she is doing.
"She's been going to a therapist. She has a job. She's going to get her GED. She's set up a bank account to save for a car," the woman says. "She's complied with everything. All her drug screens have been negative. She says she feels good and can't believe she did all that. We've worked on a family plan."
The detectives are happy with the update. The girl was put on their radar when she befriended a documented female member of SUR-13.
"This may be a success story," D'Agostino said. "We may not see her again. That's what it takes. We keepthrowing them in jail and putting them in programs, but they need support at home."
There's nothing to check at the final house. The detectives have been given the wrong address.
Before leaving, D'Agostino talks with a man sitting at a bus stop.
"I've arrested him three or four times," the detective remarks.
With curfew checks done for the night, the unit heads to Pride Park, a high-crime area.
"We get intel and saturate an area with undercover vehicles," D'Agostino explains. "We do traffic stops and talk to individuals who we think could be gang members."
Three girls walk past the undercover vehicle, one announcing loudly that she is looking for weed. D'Agostino recognizes the teenager and radios the other detectives about the situation, so his vehicle will not be compromised.
D'Agostino parks down the block from the girl's home, where his colleagues speak with kids gathered there. The abandoned duplex acting as his cover is scribbled with gang graffiti tagged by a SUR-13 member and referencing the Norte gang.
"These kids are all out and should be in bed or doing homework for school," D'Agostino said.
"We do get a lot more foot traffic in the summer when kids are out, but it's still a mess. If these kids continue this lifestyle, they'll be in prison, maybe in a RICO."