Leadership Lunch and Learn: Gangs of Palm Beach County

Leon Fooksman
Leadership Palm Beach County
January 26, 2016





Lunch and Learn Discussion: We Can All Do Something To Stop The Spread of Gangs

Car break-ins, home invasions, store robberies, and drug dealing at schools – these are regular activities of Palm Beach County’s 5,000 gang members, some as young as 7 years old.

At our first (and sold out!) Lunch and Learn on Jan. 26, a panel of law enforcement experts and two former drug dealers educated our leaders on the challenges of breaking up the roughly 165 local gangs and giving former gang members a chance at a better life.

Good news: there are solutions. Read more below.

More than 70 local leaders packed our first Lunch and Learn event at the Palm Beach Post on the gangs of Palm Beach County.  

The goal: to learn about the impact of local gangs and what we as leaders can do to address the problems they cause.

Organized by Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office (PBSO) Lt. Patricia Brown (Class of 2013), our panel consisted of Lt. John Cardaropoli and Detective Melissa Haber, both of PBSO, as well as ToQuon Starks and Mark Shannon, both of whom have served time for drug dealing and have succeeded in overcoming their gang activities.

Here are many of the takeaways:


The basic facts about local gangs: Of the 165 gangs in PBC, most are not organized and highly fluid, with most gang members moving from gang to gang without pledging alliance to a national gang affiliate. Most members are young (as young as 3rd graders) and get steered toward gangs because their family members are involved in gangs or are recruited by friends in their neighborhoods and schools. Once initiated into gangs, these youths get disenfranchised and become less interested in school work or a career path and are more concerned about making fast money and running with a group of friends.


Crimes committed by gangs: They range from minor theft to murder, but most commonly they steal cars, break into homes to take electronics, credit cards, guns and jewelry, and commit robberies of stores. These crimes can impact any of us -- even in upscale neighborhoods or luxury shopping centers.


Challenges facing law enforcement: Because these gangs are so fluid, the intelligence on them is fluid, too. That means, it’s hard to build serious criminal cases against gangs that are loosely organized. Too often, by the time police learn about a new gang, it’s already been disbanded and its members have moved on to other gangs.


What we all can do to reduce gang activity: A lot! We can donate to neighborhood organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs of Palm Beach County to support after-school programs, and sponsor events organized by Police Athletic Leagues in many cities. We can also advocate for more publicly funded drug programs -- such as the former “Drug Farm” overseen by PBSO (it was closed a few years ago due to funding cuts) -- where many addicted gang members can turn their lives around. In addition, we can mentor at-risk youths and volunteer at summer camps and enrichment programs for disadvantaged young people. Plus, those of us in management roles can hire ex-offenders to give them an opportunity at career advancement.


In general: give people who have committed crime a second change to redeem themselves. We all make mistakes.


ToQuon Starks’ story: He grew up in Pahokee in a well respected family. He attended college and played football. After an injury sidelined him, he became unfocused and started selling drugs. He wound up serving three years in prison. Once out, he struggled to find work but persevered and with the help of his family, he found work in the construction industry and eventually opened his own home restoration business. Life was hard but he kept going. He had a family supporting him unlike many of his peers who got into deeper trouble and served long prison sentences.


He said: “If a person gets involved in the life of an at-risk child, that will change the child forever”… “Just because a child makes one or two mistakes, he’s not a thug – he just made some bad decisions.”


Mark Shannon’s story: He was raised in West Palm Beach in a tight-knit family with good values. He started using drugs early on and by the time he got to serve in the military, he was struggling with addiction and how to control his anger. Once out of the military, he got more involved in using and selling drugs. He went on to become a major drug trafficker. In and out of incarceration for much of his adult life, he finally got his drug addiction under control, and with the help of his family, he landed good jobs. Today, he is a successful car salesman at Schumacher Auto Group.


He said: “I’m going to make it. I’m a survivor. You just have to give people a chance.”


Our next Lunch and Learn is March 29 at the Palm Beach Post on the topic of the mental health epidemic in Palm Beach County.  Click here to register.