Herring says fighting gangs, heroin are top priorities

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Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring told a conference of law enforcement professionals in Roanoke on Tuesday that combating gangs should remain a top priority in the commonwealth, despite — and even because of — progress made in fighting them.

“Gangs are responsible for a troubling number of crimes throughout the commonwealth, and no part of the state is immune from its consequences,” Herring said.

Herring addressed the crowd of roughly 200 police officers, prosecutors and others involved in breaking up gangs and other criminal networks, saying he’d heard from officials all across the state on a recent tour that criminal enterprises were less obvious than in recent years, but no less of a threat.

The attorney general spent two weeks traveling the state in the spring, stopping in five dozen localities in an attempt to gauge the commonwealth’s public safety challenges.

“In my meetings with local leaders, I’ve heard many communities are seeing less overt activities like tagging and showing their colors, but the crime associated with gang activities are still a real concern,” he said. “The consensus is the gains that we’ve made in recent years will be undone if we take our foot off the gas.”

Speaking at the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services’ 2014 Gang Consortium, Herring said his predecessors in office had made good headway introducing legislation and state programs to fight criminal networks. He promised to continue those efforts.

The recently elected Herring said “one of the most alarming themes” he heard from police chiefs, sheriffs, commonwealth’s attorneys and others was that heroin “is back in a big way.”

“The street prices of prescriptions have risen while cheap potent heroin has flooded the markets,” he said. “And not only is usage back, but the potency and the additives are causing overdose deaths to spike in a way that cannot be ignored.”

According to the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s Annual Report, 35 people died in Virginia in 2010 from overdosing on heroin by itself, 87 in 2011, and 115 in 2012. Those figures don’t include deaths from a combination of heroin and another drug.

Though 2012 is the latest year for which numbers are available from the medical examiner’s office, Herring said outside the conference hall that he’s seen more recent figures that suggest the trend is continuing.

“It’s a growing problem and getting worse,” he said.

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