Are there gangs in your community?
One of the best initial strategies for reducing gang
activity in any community is to learn where it is taking place, who's
involved, what they are doing, why they're doing it, and what the
community's resources are that could be brought to bear upon the situation.
In most cases, gang activity will be confined to certain neighborhoods. If
you already know gangs are present, you need not read this Part any further.
If, on the other hand, you're not sure, please take a look at the National
Youth Gang Center's publication
A Guide to Assessing
Your Community’s Youth Gang Problem.
Talk With Those Who Know
Other than personal exposure to gangs, the best source of
information on whether a given neighborhood has gangs are local juvenile
officers, probation/parole officers, and police. Due to the nature of their work they are "in the
know." In some communities, there are barriers between the public
and local criminal justice practitioners, teachers, and others who could
talk about the gang situation but are afraid to do so or have been
instructed not to talk about them by their supervisors, local politicians,
or influential business leaders, among others.
Whether juvenile officer, probation/parole officers, or police tell you
about the gangs may
be a matter of office politics. They may have been told by their
administrators that they are not to talk about the subject of
"gangs" with the public. More often than not, if a good working relationship is established
with the officers, they will be forthcoming. After all,
their line of work to help people and know that a community willing to
address the gang situation will, in the long run, benefit everyone.
Prosecutors, youth-serving agency personnel, school
administrators, and others may also be forthcoming if the setting is right.
Other than meeting with these people individually, a public mechanism for obtaining
needed information is a community forum. We'll return to that topic a little
Look For Telltale Signs
One can also tell if gangs are present by the graffiti
they create. It can sometimes be found on the back of business buildings, in
alleyways, on the back of street signs, on sidewalks, on large and small
metal trash containers, and on utility-type poles. If the gang thinks it
dominates an area, the graffiti may be more conspicuously placed such as on
the front of a building at a major intersection or on the corner mailbox.
There are as many places to post graffiti as there are flat surfaces.
While most people don't know how to
interpret graffiti, they can sense there's
a difference between "Bob loves Sue" and Btk
187. What they may not know is that "BTK" is the tag
(graffiti) for an Asian gang called Born To Kill
and the number "187" refers to California
Penal Code 187: murder. It is possible that a BTK member created that
graffiti and is indicating the gang's intention to commit a murder or, if
the BTK is crossed out, that
someone from a rival gang
is about to murder a member of the BTK.
|Field Note: The
setting is a city of nearly 700,000 residents. Graffiti can be
found on nearly every building in the central part of the city and extends from ground level to nearly six feet up the buildings'
walls. It has been accumulating in some areas for the past ten years
(some of the graffiti was dated by its creators and the dates are
My assignment was to take a
police captain and a police social research director through their neighborhood and interpret the graffiti for them. Until I
had arrived, they had paid no attention to it. Nor had any of the
other police in the city. "We never thought of it as meaning
anything," the captain said.
We entered an alley and found
graffiti that looked like this: OW
I was pointing to it and
telling the officers about what it might mean when a group of boys
strolled by. I would guess that the oldest one among them was 10
years old. They passed us then stopped and turned around to face the
captain. The oldest one suddenly threw up a hand
sign indicating OW with
He held his hands
proudly on his chest as he leaned backwards, cocked his head to the
side, and said "Old West!" We were, of course, in a
section of town referred to as the "Old West."
The expression of pride on his
face was unmistakable. After a pause of several
seconds, the captain and researcher began talking with the boys about what the other
graffiti on the wall meant and my job was finished. The graffiti meant something to the boys. And now it meant something to the
police: There are groups of boys in the neighborhood who perceived
of themselves as a gang.
If the graffiti is unintelligible, residents
should ask local juvenile officers, probation/parole officers, and police what it means.
Maybe you noticed some graffiti on a child's school notebook, or some
children are wearing - or avoiding wearing - a certain color of clothing.
Perhaps you saw a child make a gesture with his or her fingers with which
you were unfamiliar. The child could be
signs, possible evidence of that child's knowledge of gangs.
Other than being identified as or admitting that one is a gang member,
other indicators of possible youth involvement in a gang are listed below.
None are proof of gang membership, just possible indicators.
|Tattoos or branding of the body
with distinctive designs, logos, or names.|
in hair or dress style and/or having a group of friends who have
the same hair or dress style.|
|Changes in dress with a
preference for clothes of a certain color and to the exclusion
of another color (i.e., prefers blue and will not wear red).|
|Wearing clothes with certain
team logos or names (i.e., "BK" stands for British
Knights, a popular line of clothing, but it also stands for
"Blood Killer"). Your local police, juvenile officer,
or probation/parole officer can tell you what various brand and
team logos mean in gang lexicon.|
|Wearing a hat tilted to one
side or the other, rolling up one cuff more than the other or
belt buckle to one side or the other. Historically, Bloods and
Crips wore their hats, belts, etc., to one side or the other.|
|The presence of firearms,
ammunition, or other deadly weapons.
|Signs of initiation, including shaved heads,
new tattoos, bruises, cuts, and lacerations.|
|Photographs of your child and
others displaying gang hand signs, weapons, cash, drugs, or
gang-type clothing. |
|Graffiti on or around your
residence, especially in a child's room such as on walls,
furniture, clothing, notebooks, etc. This may also include drawings
and "doodling" of gang-related figures, themes of
violence, or gang symbols.|
|Possessing money and other belongings in excess of what you know he or she can afford.|
|Drawing gang symbols and using
gang handwriting (usually graffiti-like, hard to decipher, and
characterized by crossed out or upside-down letters).|
|A significant change in
personality and behavior in a relatively short period of time.|
|Defying authority and breaking
the rules of the house (staying out after being told to be home,
breaking curfew, associating with peers and going to places
which are "off limits").|
|Changes in normal routines such as not coming home after school or staying out
late at night with no explanation.|
|Developing a whole new set of friends in a
relatively short period of time.|
|Preferring to be called by a new
nickname or gang moniker. |
|Wanting to be alone,
withdrawing from involvement with family and others. |
|Associating with peers who seem
to be troublemakers and who exhibit other indicators as found on
|Imitating gangster talk and styles of
talking - trying to mimic what he or she thinks a gang
new fear of police. |
|Phone threats to the family
from rival gangs (or unknown callers) directed against your
|Listening to gangsta rap or watching videos/movies and
reading books with hate themes or a great deal of
|Using alcohol and
drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, crack, and methamphetamine.|
|Showing signs of physical
injury and lying about events surrounding the injury.|
|Using strange language or
slang, especially when certain letters of words are substituted
(like "flue" for "blue," in Crip slang,
because Crips will not use the letter "B" - it stands
for their supposed enemy gang, the Bloods).|
|Developing behavior, discipline,
and performance problems in school. Declining grades, being
truant, or dropping out of school. |
|A new found sense of bravery, bragging that he/she
is too tough to be "messed"
|A sudden change in attitude about
school, church, or other normal activities.|
While not every youth who exhibits the gang identifiers listed above is
a gang member, seeing a youth who exhibits several of the
identifiers should raise one's curiosity as to what's going on. If it's your
child, talk to him or her first before you jump to any conclusions. Then
talk with someone who can give you more information (i.e., a juvenile officer,
probation/parole officer, police, your child's teacher).
Where are the
If there is a gang in your community,
where is it? If my experience in the field applies to your situation,
you can pin point the
(s) in your community in which gang
members live. This information should be available from juvenile officers, probation/parole officers,
and police. While you may not be given names and addresses, their general location may be revealed.
By focusing on neighborhoods in which concentrations of gang youth live you
can focus your solution efforts as well. That's a practical and cost
effective way of approaching the problem. That's what police do when targeting gangs and gang
members for surveillance or for sweeps. Why not use the same method in a treatment approach? Miller
believes this is precisely what
we need to do. His study of where gang members live (by city and county
throughout the United States) allows us to focus on prevention,
intervention, and suppression efforts where they are most needed by "identifying the 'hotspots' of gang activity." (Miller
, 2001, p. 4)
Information on the whereabouts of gang members can also be deduced from
conversations with schools administrators and a review of data on school
suspensions for fighting. I say this because neighborhood schools having the most difficulty
may have gang members living in their neighborhoods. The fights, therefore,
are sometimes gang-related (i.e., settling disputes, carrying out
initiations). The only exception to this rule would be if students are bused
from one neighborhood to another in order to attend school. But there are
still ways to trace in-school fighting incidents back to the neighborhoods
in which the fighters live.
community-based agency personnel and juvenile officers are also able to
identify particular neighborhoods in a community from which they receive
most of their problem-behavior clientele.
Another way to determine if gangs may be present is through data on
drug-related arrests. The drugs of concern are usually methamphetamine,
crack cocaine, and marijuana.
Not all gangs or gang members deal in drugs and those that do may be
involved in other drugs as well. Your local police department assembles an annual report on persons arrested (which it then sends to the
Federal Bureau of Investigation or Bureau of Justice Statistics). That
report should reveal if drug sales are being conducted in your community as
measured by drug-related arrests. In what neighborhoods are those arrests
being made? Is that where the gang members live?
Most people who live in public housing projects and high-turnover
immigrant housing developments are decent, law-abiding people. These areas
are also hotbeds of activity for gangs.
If there are large public housing projects in your community you can determine
if gangs are present by talking with the project manager or the
patrol officers who work that beat. You could
also take a drive around the vicinity and look for signs of
possible gang activity (i.e., graffiti, groups of youths loitering during
school hours, open-air drug sales).
What are they doing?
We already know the kinds of crimes
gangs commit. You need to know what kinds of crimes gang members in your
neighborhood commit. Police patrol officer knows who the local
gang members are and what they're doing. Perhaps it's time to get a few of
the neighbors together and request a meeting with the patrol officer(s) in
You could help matters by keeping a record of criminal or
suspicious activity taking place in your neighborhood. If enough
neighbors do this, then present the information to the police, something positive
may be done about the problem. It may be only a
short-term solution (a few individuals are approached by the police and
encouraged to cease and desist in their undesirable behaviors), but it may also lead to long-term solutions as a basis for conversation and action in a
community forum or task force meeting.
You may even form a Neighborhood Watch group. The
National Neighborhood Watch Institute
provides some valuable information on their homepage. The National Crime
Prevention Council (NCPC) has a very informative web site which provides
how to organize a
Neighborhood Watch program and what it takes for such a program to be successful.
Once you've determined there is a gang presence in your
neighborhood or community you can probably assume there are several reasons why
the gangs formed. In the parlance of community-based social work, the reasons
for their formation are referred to as risk factors and the factors
which inhibit a youth's attraction to gangs are called protective factors.
That is our next subject.
Resources: Crime in
the United States (sometimes referred to as The Uniform Crime
Reports) is published annually by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In
it is arrest data, as well as other information, gleaned from thousands of
different law enforcement agencies.
There's much more
on the early signs of gang involvement or
serious gang involvement to help someone
a child is involved in a gang. The Los Angeles Police Department also
has information that may be helpful in terms of identifying
preteen involvement in gangs.
Michael K. Carlie
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be
reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in
writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.