Feb. 20, 2007 — -- Palm Beach County -- known for its beautiful scenery, warm breezes, opulent mansions and vacationing tourists -- also has a dangerous underbelly: a growing gang problem.
The seemingly idyllic Florida county is home to more than 200 gangs with more than 3,000 members. Palm Beach County had 101 homicides last year, 26 percent higher than the previous year and the highest since 1994.
In December, a suspected gang member was shot in a crowded shopping mall on Christmas Eve. The aftermath of the shooting, caught on a bystander's cell phone camera, showed shoppers frantically trying to save the man's life and failing.
A week later, on New Year's Day, an 8-month-old was killed in a car seat as more than 30 shots were fired from an AK-47 in a drive-by shooting.
Sheriff Ric Bradshaw of the Palm Beach County Police Department describes the gang threat in his community as one that has "escalated." He says what were once sporadic incidents of violence have become commonplace.
"There's no way that these type of things should happen in a setting of a mall. It's bad enough when they happen on a side street," Bradshaw said.
Bradshaw says gangs use violence to gain territory, intimidate competition, and, ultimately, to make money.
His department routinely faces enormous firepower on the streets they patrol, and a majority of the shootings are from assault rifles and AK-47s, which are easily hidden from plain view.
"Really, when you boil it down, this is terrorism on a local level," Bradshaw said.
Police say the county is in the midst of a fierce turf war between 10 major gangs to control drugs and prostitution.
Bradshaw's office took a stand against the area's growing gang threat: It facilitates a violent-crime task force that works in cooperation with other law enforcement agencies in the county.
Bradshaw says that the size of the county or city is irrelevant, and that as long as gangs have the opportunity to gain a stronghold and flourish within the community, they will.
Lt. Mike Wallace, an officer with the county gang unit, says that most of the county's shootings are gang-related, and that they see anywhere "from 30 to 100 rounds fired."
"Most of that is warring within the gang. There's friction within the gang. … Friction within the gang leadership," Wallace said. "Many of these shootings, it's for respect. The more violent a person is, the more respect they get in the gang."
"Violence is the tool for intimidation and elimination -- and they use it indiscriminately," Bradshaw said.
"Make no mistake about this: This is organized crime," Bradshaw said. "It's about the money. It's about the territory."
Many residents have had enough.
In response to the growing gang problem, police are saturating high crime areas and targeting locations where they think gang violence might erupt. During roll call meetings at the sheriff's headquarters, gangs are often the No. 1 topic on the agenda.
Police are trying to strengthen ties with communities to combat the gang violence. Deputy Sheriff Gregory Newborn fears young people are beginning to mimic gang violence.
Newborn responded to a call by a father whose 13-year-old son was being beaten and harassed in a ganglike manner daily. Both parents worked jobs with shift schedules that didn't allow them to be home in the evening when their son arrived from school, leaving the boy with no protection.
On this particular day, the teenager was hit in the head with a bottle.
"Today, just to see his reaction when he came home, the rage in his face and the tears," the father told ABC News on condition of anonymity. "You know, he's 'Daddy, I don't wanna be here anymore because it's not gonna stop.'"
The boy was so afraid, he took scissors to school to protect himself. And the family plans to move from a place they once thought was safe.
Newborn is encouraged that the department is being contacted by parents, who, he says, will play a major role in curtailing the gang problem. He plans to work with officials and the resource officer at the school to identify the other students involved and stop the harassment from spreading.
Art Johnson, superintendent of the Palm Beach County School District, describes efforts within the district as a two-pronged approach that's one part education, one part enforcement.
"We do have policies that deal with gang behavior, gang affiliation, gang paraphernalia. We have [also] had tattoo removal programs," Johnson told ABC News. "We try to take, first and foremost, proactive discontinuation efforts with that kind of behavior, but [when] it is necessary to take disciplinary action, we do that as well."
Johnson says societal influence and glamorization of gang culture through music and video games plus the trajectory of adolescent development create a fertile breeding ground for gang recruitment at such a young age.
"A lot of teenagers think they are indestructible, and many teenagers are into these cheap thrills. So, what causes a 16-year-old to pick up an AK-47 and shoot it into a group of people? No sane adult would do that," Johnson said.
"When you look at a youngster whose cognitive development is not there," Johnson said, "and they associate this with something they've seen on television or in the movies, it's little wonder at times that they behave the way that they do."
"The school district has been very proactive at identifying students that are affiliated with gangs, and working with them very proactively during the school day and obviously providing the necessary security on campus."
As a result, Johnson says gang violence on school grounds hasn't escalated to the levels of violence seen within the larger community.
Bradshaw thinks that admitting there is a gang problem within the county is an important and necessary first step to prevent it from spreading.
"You can't shove it under the carpet. You can't say it's just some issue that may have to be addressed," he said.
"You have to understand there is a problem. It can be an out-of-control problem if you don't address it, and that is why we are trying to get on the front end of this curve."