By Kay S. PedrottiA meeting last week to raise community awareness about a growing gang problem in Barnesville packed the courtroom at police headquarters, ‘the best turnout I’ve seen for a meeting like this,’ said Barnesville PD chief Chuck Keadle.Speaker for the event was Maj. Timothy Milton, Bibb County Academy manager for the Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth and a recognized expert on gang activity. His presentation brought emotional reactions as he gave examples of violent gang activities he has encountered. He explained several ways that gang activity can be identified in a community – walls or street signs painted with certain symbols, hand signals recognized throughout the gang culture and the coming together of young people for the purpose of criminal activity.’Not every organization or gathering of youths is a gang,’ he said. ‘The element missing from, say, the Boy Scouts or others who have identifying signals and ways of dressing, is that the criminal activity is not a part of that group – at least I hope not.’ It’s the ‘totality of circumstances’ that allows law enforcement to become aware of gang activity, he said.Capt. Maggie Moreland, operations commander for BPD and organizer for the meeting, opened with an explanation of recognizable signs for local gangs: the numbers 10 and 12 for the 10-12 gang, the ’90babies’ gather on Thursday and Sunday evenings in mostly white shirts and the letter/ number combination of 4L SC4L for the Smashing Crew. So far, she said, most of the activity centers on damaging property but ‘there is no way to guarantee they won’t escalate to violence, rape, murder, human trafficking and other felonies unless they are stopped right now.’She cautioned citizens not to try to deal with the groups if encountered. Just call the BPD or LCSO, she said, ‘and we will deal with them because this is what we are trained to do.’ The community can be most helpful, she said, in notifying law enforcement about what the people see and hear and in developing better communication between children and their parents, teachers and principals.Milton said, ‘This is not a black problem, or white problem, or Asian or Hispanic problem, this is an American problem that affects all of us.Gang life is a plague that has spread all over the country. It’s estimated there are 1 million gang members in the U.S., compared to 780,000 police officials – that includes everybody who works for the agencies, not just the street officers. So we can’t even maintain a one-to-one balance with the gangs.We need your help.’ He said Barnesville is getting together at the right time – ‘you have three gangs, Griffin now has 10, and Clayton County has 1,500.’ Current statistics show that 48% – nearly half – of violent crimes are gang-related, Milton added. Only a unified community can keep it out, he said. Contributing factors to youths joining gangs include a ‘need to belong’ to something they think is powerful, the influence of certain kinds of rap music, social media and online games featuring gangs, peer pressure and lack of communication with parents, said Milton. He estimates there are about 300 apps kids can find to play with the word ‘gangsta.’’Parents, get your kids’ passwords. It’s upsetting, maybe, but very important,’ he stated.Gangs have tried to legitimize their presence by providing a ‘˜prayer’ that members can say, as if it is a religion, which speaks of ‘crossed pitchforks over my grave’ and other gang references, said Milton.Sheriff Brad White attended the meeting along with concerned citizens, many law enforcement officers from BPD and the Lamar County sheriff’s office, Gordon State College professor James Wallace, NAACP president Sandra Puckett, chamber president Marshall Hooks, Lamar County Family Connection Collaborative director Lauren Hooks, Boys to Men director Michael Rogers, LCSO community relations officer Dep. Suzanne Cooper, Lamar County schools’ family engagement administrators Amy Banks and Kiana Battle, E.P. Roberts Center director April Smith and many more persons in leadership positions attended the meeting.