Recruiting members for street gangs could result in jail time for those caught in the act, if proposed criminal penalties to the city's antigang-recruitment ordinance are approved by the City Council and the Legislature.
With gang activity on the rise in the area, including in neighboring East Boston, Chelsea officials said they need to expand what they call a successful ordinance that has kept gang activity at a minimum here.
City officials doubled the fines for recruitment last summer, but the public safety subcommittee, chaired by Councilor Paul R. Nowicki, suggested that there should be a criminal component to gang recruitment, which is now a civil offense.
Because the measure would be a new law, it requires approval by the Legislature in the form of a home rule petition.
''This is our number one focus; we want to prevent all these young kids from being recruited into gangs," Nowicki said. ''We want to make sure for those that are being recruited that we have community groups like Roca to talk to them. We want to help them be self-sufficient and not depend on the gangs."
In its draft form, the suggested changes to the antigang-recruitment ordinance include the definition of criminal gang activity as ''a criminal offense or illegal activity . . . committed by two or more persons or by an individual at the direction of or in association with any criminal street gang with the specific intent to promote, further, or assist in any criminal conduct by members of a criminal street gang."
The suggested changes also add an article on penalties, including fines of no less than $100 and no more than $300 or imprisonment in a house of correction for not more than six months for anyone who violates the ordinance. A second offense would be punished by a mandatory sentence of not less than five days imprisonment or up to 2 years in a juvenile detention center if the offender is under 16 years of age.
The draft also provides that violators caught within 1,000 feet of a school, youth center, playground, or park could face a fine ranging from $300 to $600, a jail sentence of six to 18 months, or both. Repeat offenders would face a minimum mandatory jail sentence of no less than five days or no less than six months in a juvenile detention center if under 16 years of age.
''The penalties are only for those doing the recruiting," Nowicki said. ''We're going to come after you and throw the book at you. Get you off the streets for some months and increase the penalties the more they're caught."
Anticipating a rush of gang activity this past summer, city officials focused their efforts on doubling the $100 fine levied against gang recruiters through the antigang-recruitment ordinance for anyone caught 1,000 feet of a school, playground, youth center, or park. The ordinance, combined with the Police Department's Gang Task Force, is what city officials credit for the minimal gang activity in Chelsea during the summer.
''I would say this summer was a pleasant surprise," said Police Chief Frank Garvin. ''With the Gang Task Force doing their jobs, we have cut down on [gang activity]. They're going to other places, East Boston, Everett. Not to pat ourselves in the back, but we're very proactive."
In a recent presentation to the City Council's public safety subcommittee, Garvin and Captain Keith Houghton told councilors that police officers made about 200 arrests during the summer, mainly gang-related, but not all directly related to Chelsea, Nowicki said. Many of the arrests were of gang members who had warrants for their arrest in other communities, Nowicki said.
''They talked about how they were able to open information packages on about 70 to 90 of the people [arrested]," Nowicki said, referring to the files kept on known gang members by the Gang Task Force. ''There were some reports of some stabbings or one or two shootings [during the summer], but it wasn't as bad as expected. They were able to keep things under control this summer."
Nowicki said the public safety subcommittee will try to finalize the details of the ordinance by Nov. 1 to send it to the full council for a first reading. The next step would be to schedule a public hearing. If the final changes are accepted by the full council, Nowicki said they hope to send the home rule petition to the Legislature in January.
Even without the criminal component to the ordinance, Chelsea's approach to gang activity is creating a buzz in the street gang underground, said Council president Roy A. Avellaneda.
''The feedback on the street is that, because of the expertise of the work done by the Police Department, there are known active gang members who are not coming to Chelsea because they realize there is a higher possibility of being caught here," Avellaneda said. ''What they say is that Chelsea is a hot spot."
Avellaneda said he expects the council to approve the ordinance changes.
''You want to send a message that [getting caught] it's not just a walk in the park," Avellaneda said. ''With a civil ordinance, you can pay [the fine] or the judge will likely dismiss it. In my mind, by adding the criminal portion, it shows we're serious about this."
The Gang Task Force was started in the early 1990s, when gang activity was at an all-time high in Chelsea, Garvin said. Although gang activity has not returned to those levels recently, Garvin said that expanding the anti-gang-recruitment ordinance could help the Police Department make Chelsea undesirable for gang members.
In other efforts to crack down on gang activity, the Police Department has merged its Traffic Bureau with its Special Operations Units, which include the Gang Task Force, expanding training to include handling street gang crime.
Members of the Traffic Bureau, who are authorized to stop vehicles for a number of violations, will now be able to relay information to the Gang Task Force if they identify a known gang member through a traffic stop. Garvin said the Traffic Bureau will be expanded in January with three more officers.
Katheleen Conti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.