WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- The quick arrest of the four people for allegedly spray painting gang graffiti on rocks, a picnic area and a basketball backboard at a Winston-Salem park is a sign that the police department's gang unit continues to take the matter seriously, eight years after the department's gang unit launched.
Two adults and two teens were arrested Thursday and charged with vandalism. The damage was estimated to be more than $1,000.
Police said Jose Manuel Campos, 20, and Luis Antonio Rosado Jr., 22, along with a pair of 16 year olds, were part of Autumn Oaks Surenos and Flores 13 gangs. All the suspects were arrested at a home in the 700 block of Clemmonsville Circle.
"I wouldn't say that we have a growing gang problem in Winston-Salem but we are doing a better job of identifying gang activity," said Sgt. JS Doss, who oversees the gang unit.
The Winston-Salem City Council mandated a gang unit within the police department eight years ago. That was after several years of looking into gang related violence and how it affected the community.
Another part of that effort is the Center for Community Safety at Winston-Salem State University.
"Looking at, how do we intervene and get youth out of gangs that want to get out? And then how do we prevent others from joining gangs?" asked Alvin Atkinson, executive director of the program.
According to Atkinson, the latest numbers from September show 126 validated gang members. More than 700 validated gang members have been identified since the gang unit began in 2006.
Atkinson commends the work done by the gang unit for keeping gang related issues at bay in Winston-Salem for the last several years. He calls most of the crime tied to gangs, like vandalism, minor but knows that gang members can have a major impact on youth and the community.
The Center for Community Safety has launched a pilot program in schools, encouraging kids to avoid gangs but we found one 14-year-old playing at the park on Tyler Drive who said she still feels scared at school.
"They get in lots of fights," said Katzumi Rodriguez. "I try and stay away from it but it's all over my school."
Rodriguez said she didn't notice the graffiti until Thursday and has never considered the park a scary place to be.
"I haven't seen gangs," said Rodriguez. "I've seen kids out and playing."
Atkinson hopes the graffiti doesn't change that.
"For us, it's a matter of trying to reach out to the broader neighborhood and really reach out to youth who may not be in that gang to not look at that as something to be admired or championed," said Atkinson.