The awareness meeting was hosted by Bradley County Sheriff’s Deputy Willie Espinoza. Espinoza, who has been with the sheriff’s office since 2003, is a member of the Tennessee Gang Investigators Association and serves as vice president of the organization’s Southeast region.
“We do not have a gang problem in Bradley County but we do have a gang presence. We need to be proactive against this because it does have the potential to get worse,” said Espinoza.
Espinoza photographs and documents graffiti/vandalism in the community. He also interviews incoming inmates at the Bradley County Jail and Juvenile Center to determine if he/she is associated with a gang. According to Espinoza, the youngest admitted gang member he interviewed in Bradley County was 10 years old and the oldest was in his early 60s.
Major street gangs include Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), 18th Street, Crips/Bloods, Folk Nation, People Nation, Gangster Disciples, Latin King and Queen Nation, Vice Lords and Asian Boyz.
During the meeting, residents had the opportunity to view photos of a number of downtown Cleveland buildings and abandoned houses which contained graffiti associated with gangs. Residents were educated on how to identify gang signs/symbols, colors, tattoos or markings, hand signs, and how to report suspicious activity.
“If you see a car with three or four people sitting in it, looking suspicious, all wearing the same color, jot that tag number down and call us. We’ll investigate it. This is your community, the police can’t do it alone. We need you to be the eyes out there, too,” he said.
According to Espinoza, Bradley County is centrally located between Knoxville, Chattanooga and Atlanta — cities where gang activity is on the rise.
“It was a few months ago, we stopped a guy on the interstate from Norcross, Ga. After interviewing him, we discovered he was given orders to come here, to Cleveland, to start a gang. Gang members migrate. They want to grow,” he said.
According to Espinoza, some of the primary reasons gangs are formed are for profit (such as selling drugs), to provide protection from another gang or to claim territory (neighborhood). Many known gang members are also seeking a sense of belonging.
“Typically what we’re seeing is gang members come from broken homes. Their moms weren’t around or their dads weren’t around. They didn’t have a good role model or feel loved. We need to make sure our kids are loved and supported. We need to keep them from wanting to join gangs,” he said.
For more information about gang presence in Bradley County or to report suspicious activity, call 728-7300.