With the sun still an hour away from rising on a recent weekday morning, a police task force prepared to swarm the Edgewood apartments of five people accused of having ties to the notorious drug-running gang the Bloods.
Before daybreak, they had arrested two people, seized dozens of bags of crack and $2,900 in cash, and - they hope - derailed the gang's local operations.
In the past few years, police say, the Bloods have been sending "generals" from New York City to take control and organize the local drug game - an unlikely presence amid the community's townhouses and winding, leafy roads. But dealers tell police it's prime ground.
"I was interviewing a known Blood general from New York, and I asked him, `What's the appeal?'" said Cpl. Tom Gamble, who oversees a four-deputy anti-gang squad. "And he said, `It's easy. These guys [local drug dealers] are soft. They think they're tough, but they're soft.'"
Men flash gang signs and some wear color-coded clothing. There have been shootings, stabbings and "street jacks," in which a group robs another and takes over their spot.
And in December, a cab driver was shot in what police suspect was a gang initiation rite, an incident that rocked Edgewood and sprung police and county officials into action. The trial of one of the suspects - 20-year-old Darrell Levon Miller - begins tomorrow.
Leaders say their efforts are paying dividends. The raid was the result of a 10-month undercover operation, and followed the arrest of Eric "Tech" Barnett, who is alleged to be the local Bloods' top-level general, on federal drug and weapons charges.
"Harford County is not a group of kids on the street corner anymore. We're prime ground for illegal activities to set up and take root, and we're trying to disrupt that," said Joe Ryan, manager for the county's office of drug control policy.
Hoping for better
That "prime ground" wasn't what Trevette Anderson expected when she moved her family of nine children 16 months ago from Baltimore to Havre de Grace, hoping to escape the perils of city life.
Last month, her oldest child, Donta Maurice Bain, 17, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the stabbing death of an Aberdeen man. Police say he was a member of the Bloods, and that the victim had strong ties to the rival Crips.
"I moved my family out here expecting a whole different scenery," said Anderson, who, along with church leaders, persuaded the former choir boy to turn himself in. "I figured I'd be moving away from that type of devastation."
She said the sprawl of the suburbs and a lack of community programs contributed to his disconnection from church and family, and that he had moved out a month before the incident. She said he got caught up with the wrong crowd, though she has no concrete information that he was involved with a gang. "It's sickening," she said. "I don't know where these people come from. It hurts my heart."
Bain now sits in the Harford County Detention Center awaiting arraignment in November.
To fight the gangs, Harford County Sheriff R. Thomas Golding unveiled a countywide anti-gang initiative in January that focused a team of four deputies full time on gang activity and included school and community outreach. Additionally, a bill banning gang recruitment, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Nancy Jacobs of Harford, was signed into law in June.
"We're using every tool in the toolbox to stop their activity," Golding said.
While alarming for residents and officials, the county's gang activity doesn't approach the cutthroat, widespread nature with which the Bloods and Crips have been associated in cities such as Los Angeles and New York. According to the Justice Department, Baltimore police have identified over 240 distinct gangs involved in drug distribution there. In Harford, police say they've found 90 individuals.
In recent years, there's been a trend in which inner-city gangs organize in suburbs and rural areas, according to Ric Curtis, an anthropology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, which has seen its gang presence reduced as they network to outlying regions.
There, gang leaders see higher profit margins, can throw their weight around and believe local authorities are ill-equipped to keep watch, he said.
"They're big fish in a small pond," Curtis said.
On the front lines
Inside a makeshift police command center in an Edgewood neighborhood townhouse, a binder holds photos of gang graffiti spotted throughout the region, which promote various groups or make threats on rivals. On the side of a cabinet hangs lists of possible new members and new groups, and a list of 12 identifiers of a gang member sits nearby.