Brian Murphy, GOP candidate for Md. governor, says Montgomery County has more gang members than cops
Montgomery County is usually described as "bucolic," "upper-class," and "ritzy."
An adjective you hear less often is "gang-riddled."
During an appearance Wednesday on The Morning News Express with Bob Miller on WFMD in Frederick, Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Murphy — who lives in Chevy Chase — said: "We've got more gang members in Montgomery County than police officers. And that terrifies me." Murphy, who stresses fiscal conservatism, said he wanted to make sure public safety wasn't harmed by budget cuts.
Promises to get tough on crime aren't a surprise coming from Murphy, who is running to the right of Bob Ehrlich in the race for the Republican nomination, and have helped him earn him an endorsement from Chuck Jenkins, the popular sheriff of Frederick County. (Murphy has also found a fan in former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.)
Figuring out whether Murphy is on target in his statement is trickier than it appears at first glance. We counted seven law enforcement agencies with jurisdictions in the county:
- Montgomery County Police have 1,152 authorized positions, but a spokeswoman said the actual number goes up and down from day-to-day based on retirements and departmental leave.
- There are 97 authorized positions for Maryland-National Capital Park Police in Montgomery County, but only 72 are filled at the moment, a spokeswoman said.
- The Maryland State Police Barracks in Rockville has 34, according to a spokeswoman.
- Chevy Chase Village's force has 11 sworn officers.
- Rockville's own department has 57.
- Gaithersburg's force has 51, according to a spokesman.
- Takoma Park Police have 39 officers.
- Metro Transit Police have a policy of not releasing the number of officers they deploy to specific stations or jurisdictions, a spokesman said.
Adding all those numbers up, you get 1,416. (We'll allow some wiggle room, however, since many of these officers probably rarely deal with gang members.)
On to the gang members. The most recent (and oddly specific) estimate for the number of gang members in the county is 1,206. That's from a July 2009 article in The Gazette, which says the estimate dates to December 2008. The article also says that's an increase from 1,057 in July of the same year. Meanwhile, a May 2009 report from the Montgomery County League of Women Voters says police estimate the county's gang presence at "some 1,200 members in 30 gangs."
One thing is clear: According to department statistics, gang-related crime is going down, not up. In the first quarter of 2010, there were 54 gang-related crimes compared to 92 in the first quarter of 2009. And 2009 had the lowest number of gang-related crimes in the past five years. There were 286 crimes last year, down from a high of 607 in 2007. So even if there are more gang members than police officers, police are doing a good job keeping the hordes of gang members from doing too much damage.
But things got tricky when we called the Montgomery County Police Department for an updated estimate. Lucille Baur, a department spokeswoman, called us back to say that the Special Investigations Unit, which leads most of the department's anti-gang efforts, was using a new computer program to track gang members. The people who know how to operate the program, she said, were out of the office.
In a recent interview, Murphy said that in meeting with law enforcement from around Montgomery County, multiple officers told him they were outnumbered by gang members.
"When I meet with law enforcement officers, they believe this, and that's a problem," he said.
Murphy said that after hearing it anecdotally, he looked in to the matter and was convinced it was true. He also believes any estimate Montgomery Police put out is going to be lower than it should be because police will miss illegal immigrants.
"Illegal immigration has a huge organized crime element," he said. (That statement might be worth a different fact-check on a different day.)
Luis Cardona, a youth violence prevention coordinator with the county's Department of Health and Human Services, said the regional nature of gangs who can now connect via Facebook, Myspace and Twitter means some of the members in the database the police use to track gangs don't live in the county.
"It's migratory ... You can run in to someone from Queen Anne's County," he said. "[The database] doesn't mean there's actually 1,200 gang members in the county."
While Cardona said he wasn't trying to downplay the county's issues with gangs ("There's no doubt you have individuals who are involved in gang activity ... A gang problem is a gang problem."), he pointed out gangs were also only involved in about 1 percent of the county's crime, well below the national average.
"We're not L.A. or Chicago and we're not about to become L.A. or Chicago," Cardona said.
With Cardona and Murphy telling different stories, The Facts Machine is temporarily stymied by inferior technology. We'll update this post when we hear from police and are able to nail down a final ruling.
UPDATE: Well, this might be harder than we anticipated. On Friday, we spoke to Capt. Mitch Cunningham of the Montgomery County Police's Special Investigations Division. The number he provided us?
So Montgomery County somehow eliminated close to 800 gang members in recent years?
Nope. The new system police are using makes comparisons with old ones "apples and oranges," Cunningham said. Police switched to the Baltimore-Washington High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area's (HIDA) GANGNET system, which is run by the federal Justice Department and used by neighboring jurisdictions.
"The standards are much higher for HIDA," Cunningham said. "We're feeling this much more accurate."
Under the old system, gang members could be added to the database based on relatively little information. If a gang member said while being interrogated that his gang had 30 members, 30 people might be added to the list. The new system requires the gang member to either admit that he is in a gang, or for a "reliable source" to say he is.
The old number wasn't inaccurate, Cunningham insisted, just based on different standards: "We're opting for accuracy over projections," he said. He did concede that "in some cases, there was not a distinction made between gang members and gang associates."
Police are still in the process of transferring data from the old database to the new one, so the 462 number will definitely increase, Cunningham said. Once they're done, we'll give them another call and try to make a ruling then.
So we STILL have Insufficient Evidence To Rule on Brian Murphy's claim about cops and criminals.