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Berks County Gang Task Force gets a new focus in response to increase in violence

Reading Eagle - 2/24/2021

Feb. 23—Operation Night Light is back on.

Responding to an increase in gun violence by young offenders, some with ties to neighborhood gangs in Reading, Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams on Tuesday announced that a gang task force formed over a decade ago will be more visible and active than it has been in recent years.

The Berks County Gang Task Force has existed for about 13 years with Reading police and suburban officers as members, but the concentrated patrols to contact individuals on probation or parole and search for wanted persons had ground to a halt during the pandemic.

That's because law enforcement agencies tried to limit their exposure with the public in the interest of slowing community spread of COVID-19.

But now that law enforcement officers and other first-responders are vaccinated, those patrols, which had been known as Operation Night Light are being cranked up, Adams said.

Night Light typically involved juvenile as well as adult probation officers fanning out with city and suburban police officers, doing checks on individuals under supervision, and at times confiscating guns and illegal drugs.

The move to crank up the task force began late last year, well before the Feb. 12 shooting of two teen sisters in the Oakbrook Homes community in Reading, Adams said. A boy who was 14 at the time is charged in the killing of one sister and the wounding of the other.

It was the most recent and highest-profile episode of gun violence in recent months.

"Even before some of these shootings there was a need (for the directed patrols)," Adams said. "We saw a lot more juvenile and young offenders involved in some violence and we believe we need to get out there and make our presence known and be more proactive than just reactive."

Adams said the task force was formed as part of the federally funded Route 222 gang prevention initiative focused on the Route 222 corridor from Allentown to Lancaster.

"We're cranking it back up, the Night Light patrols," the DA said. "Night Light is going live again."

Though the detectives on the district attorney's office ran the task force with the probation department, Adams said the detectives were not as involved, but that will change.

"My office is going to be in it more than before," he said.

Another partner is needed, and that's the public, the DA said.

Too many young people who have no business being around firearms have access to guns, and parents need to take accountability, Adams said, adding that other residents in the community need to speak up when they know someone is allowing a teen access to a firearm.

Gangs in Reading are more disorganized than organized, he said.

They generally are associated with a geographic area and have only loose ties, if any, to national criminal gangs.

But they have some common denominators: drugs, guns and violence.

Adams' announcement comes a week after Reading Mayor Eddie Moran and Police Chief Richard Tonrielli announced a three-prong strategy to combat gun violence in the city following a public outcry in the wake of the Oakbrook shootings.

Adams said the task force is committed to deterring violence in the community, obtaining intelligence on gangs and targeting identified gang members.

"If these members are involved in criminal activity," he said, "the district attorney's office will seek a gang enhancement sentencing recommendation, which will increase an individual's sentence if the individual was involved in a crime of violence as defined in Pennsylvania law and the offense was knowingly committed at the direction of or for the purpose of benefiting, promoting or furthering the interests of a criminal gang."

The task force is composed of the following agencies:

Berks County Prison

Pennsylvania state parole

— Federal probation department

Reading police

Cumru Township police

Central Berks police

Muhlenberg Township police

Shillington police

Spring Township police

West Reading police

Wyomissing police

— State police

Adams urges anyone with information about crimes being committed by individuals or gangs to contact Crime Alert Berks County or a member of the task force.

The task force will initiate the GREAT (Gang Resistance Education and Training) Program, which will focus on elementary and middle school-age children at risk of joining gangs and develop relationships between police and the communities they serve, the DA said.

"Through this intervention program, our children will receive guidance which hopefully will steer them away from becoming involved with a gang," Adams said.

Responding to a recent uptick in violence associated with street gangs, the Berks County district attorney's office today announced that a task force formed more than a decade ago will be put to greater use, from targeted patrols to combat gang activity as well as a prevention and intervention program designed for elementary- and middle-school-age children who are at risk of joining gangs.


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