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Area gangs not going away, but numbers down

MANATEE -- When Detective Garrick M. “Ski” Plonczynski joined the Gang Suppression Unit of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, he was gung-ho about getting every single gang member off the street.

Now, 12 years later, he is more realistic.

Plonczynski told members of the Manatee CEO Roundtable on Friday that although he is thrilled that the number of gang members in Manatee has fallen by 50 percent since 2006, gangs will probably never fully disappear from the county. Law enforcement must establish a presence on the street, get to know gang members and their families, and learn why the gang lifestyle is desirable to them, he said.

Plonczynski said the ultimate model for fighting gang membership is not jail, but the outreach work of the Rev. Jerry Parrish, youth at-risk director of the Manatee County YMCA, who works with many gang members and their families to try to provide alternatives to the gang lifestyle.

“If you would have told me 12 years ago that I would be saying that one of my goals was rehabilitation, I would have said you were crazy,” Plonczynski said. “But jail doesn’t work for gang members. You have to rehabilitate.”

Parrish, who has been on the streets of Manatee for the past five years, agreed.

“When you build a relationship, feed and clothe them and meet their human needs you can direct them,” Parrish said later Friday. “Ski is right. There are kids who will make gang mistakes. But I think we can take a big bite out of that. We can keep gangs from being generational.”

Parrish said youth join gangs sometimes just because their human needs are not being met any other way.

“A lot of it is just poverty,” Parrish said. “ ‘I’m hungry. I’m lonely.’ We need to replace that with positives. It’s not rocket science.”

Larry Eger, the public defender for the 12th Circuit Court and a member of the CEO Roundtable, said he also agreed with Plonczynski’s conclusion that jail doesn’t cure gang participation.

“We can’t incarcerate ourselves out of this problem,” Eger said. “That is a very short-sighted approach. It’s a very complicated problem that does not lend itself to simple solutions.”

Some members of the CEO Roundtable, which meets quarterly and is chaired by School District of Manatee County Superintendent Tim McGonegal, said Plonczynski’s 30-minute PowerPoint presentation, statistics and observations were eye-opening.

For instance, there are 1,100 gangs in Florida and 48,812 gang members, Plonczynski said.

Manatee County has 23 gangs.

In the past four years, the number of gang members in Manatee has fallen from 1,200 to roughly 600 due to aggressive prosecution of gang members, Plonczynski said.

Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube, who attended the meeting as a member of the CEO Roundtable, praised state racketeering laws for allowing for gang members to be prosecuted.

The laws are modeled after the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO, and enable Florida authorities to tackle illegal gangs by taking them to court as a group.

“In the past, when we wanted to take a gang member to trial, we would often have witnesses disappear or recant their testimony,” Steube said.

With racketeering charges, cases can be prosecuted without the testimony of witnesses and victims, Plonczynski said.

Manatee County was the first county in the state to use the racketeering laws in this way, targeting members of three gangs.

“We are pinpointing a fourth,” Steube said.

Of the 600 gang members in the county, 17.2 percent are female, according to Gang Suppression Unit statistics.

“That’s a higher percentage of females than in some much larger cities,” Plonczynski said.

The gang unit keeps tabs on all 23 gangs, including the approximate number of members, he said.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.