200 law enforcement officials to gather in Ross to start two-day conference on gang activity in Western Pennsylvania

| Wednesday, April 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Gang members drive much of the drug crime and violence in the Pittsburgh region, authorities said, and 35 gangs operate in Allegheny County alone.

“Cartels are becoming more aggressive, more brazen,” said Bill Chalfant, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Alliance of Gang Investigators' Associations. “The profit margins are becoming just too high, and violence is just the cost of doing business.”

On Wednesday, more than 200 law enforcement officials will gather at the Holiday Inn in Ross to start a two-day conference on gang activity in Western Pennsylvania. The discussion, restricted to law enforcement, is sponsored by the East Coast Gang Investigators' Association, the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office, and state Sens. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery County, and John Yudichak, D-Luzerne County.

Authorities estimate 70 percent of homicides in the Pittsburgh area are gang-related, although crime statistics don't specify when gang affiliation is suspected.

“We have no idea as to the true impact of gangs,” said Chalfant, a detective with the Lancaster County District Attorney's Office.

Stopping gangs begins with training, intelligence and collaboration, said District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., whose investigators helped disrupt gang activity in the Mon Valley and the eastern suburbs the past year.

“If we can address the drug trade or the use of violence, either way the public wins,” Zappala said.

Chalfant said a state law that Gov. Tom Corbett signed in October that enhances penalties for crimes related to criminal gang recruitment is a step in the right direction, but police need a way to identify gang members for policing, prosecuting and tracking.

“It's got to be an across-the-board collaboration. We have to be able to share information and document this information statewide, and we need everyone to be on the same page,” Chalfant said. “The minute you identify them and (track) them back to the location where they're from, they know they're under a microscope.”

Police departments in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler and Westmoreland counties have officers registered for the conference, which they say will help them even if their communities aren't known for gang activity.

“While we don't have a real gang presence in Ross ... we're sending officers in order to be educated in case we do have some interaction with them,” Ross Detective Brian Kohlhepp said.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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