Wyoming Guard Analyst Cracks Gang Code
June 19, 2008
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (Army News Service, June 19, 2008) - Small towns are the hallmark of Wyoming, with most communities never exceeding 20,000 people.
Even the capital city of Cheyenne, the state's most populated city at around 60,000 residents, doesn't come close to the metropolis of Denver, just a hundred miles south.
So when talk of gang activity comes up, there's a sense of disbelief that comes with it.
"For several years we didn't see a whole lot (of criminal gang activity)," Cheyenne Police Lt. Mark Munari said, "but now it's increasing."
Munari said his department first dealt with Colorado gangs encroaching into Wyoming's borders about 10 years ago. That activity, while not nearly as intense as Denver's, has picked up -- so much so the police sought help from the Wyoming National Guard.
Staff Sgt. Jessica Williams is an intelligence analyst for the 115th Fires Brigade, based in Cheyenne.
After graduating from the University of Wyoming with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and a master's degree in public administration, she went to work for the FBI at the National Gang Intelligence Center.
Williams' love for the Cowboy State was so intense, she retained her status with the Wyoming unit. Every couple of months she would fly west to drill in week-long stints.
"I was hoping for a transfer to the Wyoming/Colorado region after a couple of years in Washington, D.C.," she said. "I felt like D.C. was not a life; it was an existence."
Instead of transferring, in February Williams was offered a year-long tour with the Wyoming National Guard's Counter Drug Program. She took a leave of absence from the FBI and headed home, but she had no idea what she was up against.
The National Guard Counterdrug Program conducts a full-spectrum campaign that bridges the gap between the Department of Defense and non-Department of Defense institutions in the fight against illicit drugs and transnational threats to the Homeland. The Counterdrug Program is the military supporting all levels of government, including law enforcement and community-based counterdrug operations to anticipate, prevent, deter and defeat those threats. The overall goal, officials said, is to enhance national security and protect American society.
"When I came into this position, it was fairly undefined, anything that was drug-related at the police department, I could have been working on," Williams said.
She realized the challenge as she drove through the streets of Cheyenne, passing more than the occasional gang graffiti, called "tags." When Williams spoke to her civilian law enforcement supervisors about anti-gang efforts, she knew she found her niche.
"I saw a gap, a need here," she said of the lack of a specified gang intelligence office at the police department. "So I really jumped on it."
<b>Anti-terror is like anti-gang</b>
No one has claimed gangs in Cheyenne are anywhere near as dangerous or insidious as a cell of terrorists, but there are similarities.
"Different gang sets will act somewhat synonymous with the main body," Williams said, comparing the way terror cells work with their main organization. "Gangs and terrorists have a bit of a correlation."
Her military intelligence background ramped up her gang-intelligence-gathering ability. Throw in the work she did for the FBI and suddenly the Bloods were as big a target for Williams as Al Qaeda.
"She's been involved in counterintelligence for a bit of time and now she's sharing that with us, with all the training that she's been able to attend," Munari said. "We wouldn't even be close to where we are now (tracking local gangs). The biggest thing is probably being able to track, accurately track who we have as gang members in town as well as who we have as gang sets, here in town."
Williams gleans her starting points from information the officers pick up on the streets. She uses popular info-sharing sites like "My Space" to put names and faces to the local gangs.
With her sole focus on gang activity, Williams connects with other agencies around Wyoming and neighboring Colorado. With their help, she's compiled an ever-growing list of gangs and gang members.
With the information, she's helped officers and prosecutors build cases against that criminal element. She's also helped brief civilian law-enforcement and military commanders on what to look for, how to identify gang members and how far-reaching the problem really is.
<b>Sir: your Soldier is a gang member</b>
While her uniform is civilian, Williams is still a Soldier on orders. Her job means she'll be among the first to learn of a military member in the area who is suspected of affiliating with a gang.
Once she realizes the suspected gang member is a Soldier, she lets the police department know she is backing off the case, then informs the appropriate military command. Williams said it's happened, but just once or twice, "and that's a tough issue when I see that Soldier's name come up. There are ethical issues with what you do. There's always the safety and concern of your Soldiers."
As for the Wyoming National Guard as a whole, she doesn't see a gang problem - yet.
"I'm not going to say we don't have any Soldiers involved in gang activity," Williams said, noting it's tougher to track gang involvement in the Guard than on active duty.
"What you get with the Guard are Soldiers coming in one weekend a month and having a life on the outside. So the propensity that gang membership goes unnoticed in the Guard is a lot higher."
The briefings on gang activity are not just for commanders wondering how to spot it or what to do with it. They're also for Soldiers readying for a mobilization.
"Potentially, as we get ready to deploy, there are concerns of gang activity in the area of operations that it may be prudent to do a quick gang brief," she said. It's part of the effort to keep good Soldiers from bad things - like jokingly flashing gang signs in front of gang-affiliated Soldiers who take those signs seriously.
In Cheyenne, Williams is dealing with a different gang issue than the rest of the state. The issue involves identifying possible gang members at F.E. Warren Air Force Base.
"The military is just another slice of society," she said. "If our community has a gang problem, the military bases will have gang membership. It might not be a big problem, but there might be some gang membership. We don't have a clear picture yet. That's one of the intel gaps that we have at this space and time."
Williams said gang members or former gang members who join the military sometimes find comfort in the familiarity of their former gangs, even if the members are total strangers.
"That's what they know back home and they found that as a second family," she said.
Her assignment has peaked the interest of military law enforcement. She said the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations has requested to join in the anti-gang training.
Williams and her police officer teammates will be the first to say the gang situation is ever-changing and growing across Wyoming.
The same could be said about her job and the scope of responsibility she's taking on. The problem for the Cheyenne Police Department is her position is dependent on her military orders renewing each year, and the officers also worry about losing her to a deployment.
"We can't backfill your slot," Munari said to her. "There's no one to fill your shoes."
Williams' unit is preparing for the possibility of a deployment to Kuwait in 2009. She wants to serve her country on the deployment, but she also wants to continue to help the state unravel the growing network of criminal gang activity. She's even looking into ways she can help the department if she goes overseas.
"This has been a dream job. Being able to come back to Wyoming and start working as an intel analyst has been wonderful," she said.
Her career and desire to stay in Wyoming are also causing conflicts inside of her. Williams wants to serve as an officer, but the position with Counter Drug is for enlisted only. For this job, she said that's a sacrifice she'll make.
(Officer Candidate Christian Venhuizen is a public affairs specialist with the Wyoming National Guard.)