Stages in the Police
Response to Gangs
In the material that follows I've tried to identify the various stages through which police departments
on their way from denial to dealing with gangs on the street and elsewhere. They
are presented in
logical order. Seldom, however, does logic mimic real life. Some
departments pass over a stage or two or move backward, particularly when a new police
chief or sheriff enters the picture or when the gang situation in town changes.
So, with that in mind, here
are some of the more identifiable stages in the police response to gangs.
Field Note: The
social researcher I interviewed referred to the "wall of denial in the
public and among the police" as regards the gang situation in the
United States. "There are exceptions," he said, "but
In another community, one with
100,000 inhabitants and a police force of 300 officers, the one
departmentally-assigned gang officer (a Sergeant) said "The position
of gang officer was created a few days after a fight took place
between two of our city's gangs. The day after the fight there was a
drive-by shooting on one of the fighter's homes. No one was killed,
but the community was upset by the incident."
When I asked the Sergeant "What
do you think the future holds in store as concerns gangs in this
community" he said "It will probably take one of these gang members
being killed before the city and the department wake up and
recognize there's a serious problem here. Our Chief believes there's
a problem, but our Sheriff doesn't think there is one."
To deny something is to refuse to accept or recognize its existence. There appear to be several reasons why a community, its police department,
or both may deny the existence of gangs when it is clear (to some patrol
officers, juvenile/probation/parole officers, and others close to the local
gang situation) that
there are gangs in the community. The following are among those reasons.
A. Political Expediency
|Field Note: I
asked a police administrator "Why
would a police chief who knows his community has a gang problem fail to
acknowledge this publicly?" He replied, "Why would
a police chief announce to his community that there's a problem his
department can't solve?"
During the past three years I learned that, in the United States and
elsewhere, patrol officers are among the first to know if there are gangs on their
beat - whether their supervisors accepted the existence of gangs
or not. I don't mean to infer that police administrators don't know
what's happening on the streets of the communities they serve, although that
is sometimes the case. Rather, it's the politics
of publicly recognizing the existence of gangs which keeps them in what
appears to be denial.
For the sake of expediency, it is easier to deny the presence of gangs
and gang members than it is to recognize their presence and have to deal
with the political fallout of that decision. The ramifications of having
gangs include, but are not limited to, a loss of revenue from tourism,
heightened fear among the citizenry, and displeasure with the police if the
problem doesn't go away.
B. Downward Comparison
One of the more common ways to maintain a state of denial is to use downward
comparisons such as "Yeah, we have gangs, but it's nothing like what
they have in L.A.!" or "We used to have gangs, but we took care of that.
we have today is not nearly as serious."
Note: I asked a chief
probation and parole officer about the local police department's attitude toward gangs
in the community. She replied by asking me "Is there such a thing as a police chief who is
over-educated about gangs?" I asked what she meant and she said
"We have a chief of police who came here just a couple of years
ago. He came from Chicago, where the gang situation is much
worse than it is here. But we do have a gang problem! But not
according to him. He doesn't see our problem as worth any
attention because it isn't as serious as the gang situation in
The use of downward comparisons is, in effect, a rationalization. While accepting
that gangs are present in the community, a person can downplay the significance
of that fact by believing the problem isn't significant enough - the problem isn't as
serious as it is "over there." The most common reply I received when police and non-police were
interviewed about whether their community had a "gang problem" or
not was "Not really. It's nothing like what they have in L.A."
C. Failure to Recognize Gangs
Denial may also be the result of a failure to recognize
a group of individuals as a gang. That is, a community and police unfamiliar with
gangs or gang members may not recognize them as a gang when they encounter them.
|Field Note: In a community of nearly 150,000 residents and a police force with
nearly 240 officers, it was known that there were open-air crack
sales going on in a neighborhood on the west side of town. Unbeknownst to the
police, eighteen members of a gang from Chicago had rented an
apartment in town and moved a woman into it. She was responsible for
maintaining the residence.
Every two weeks one of the
eighteen gang members drove down from Chicago, moved into the
apartment and started selling crack in the neighborhood. Each
gang member would pass along information about the drug deals and
customers to the next. It took the police nearly three years
to figure out what was happening - and they are very capable police.
Migrating gang members can operate in a
community without being recognized. Local gang members can also
escape detection for a time - especially if no act of violence, serious
property damage, or notable theft is committed. The cloak of
invisibility they wear is that they are locals - you know, just local
"boys being boys," not a gang.
residents often fear gangs and their members. They are intimidated by their
very presence. One way to escape
feeling fear is to deny the object or cause of it. This is
another reason why some
communities are in denial as regards their gangs. Police also fear gangs
when they are first encountered because, like anything else, they are an unfamiliar
and unknown entity and this fosters uncertainty. They can also be very
E. Rejecting a Negative Self Image
Denial is an understandable response to the presence of gangs in a
community. Members of a previously
gang-free neighborhood may find it difficult to accept the fact they now
have a gang. The word "gang" conjures up images of
a failing community, poor parenting, disturbed or violent children, poverty and
big-city problems. Denial, in this case, is the rejection of a negative
If there are youth who are socializing with one another over an extended
period of time who are supporting one another in repeated violations of the law, it
may be attributed to "just some kids bein' kids," or "just acting
out." In reality, it would be better to inquire further to determine whether
the group is a gang or
Typically, when the acting out continues, or escalates in seriousness or
frequency, or when more people become involved as members or victims,
police are forced into exploring the situation in greater depth. Over time, it becomes apparent to patrol officers that what they
are dealing with is not just a few people acting out. It's a gang. Or it's a few gangs.
Or it's a group of "wannabes" who, if left unfettered, will
become a larger problem.
If a police department is ready to move beyond denial, the next phase in
their response to gangs is to accept that they are present in the
community - or at least in one or two neighborhoods.
Acknowledgement refers to a recognition of something - in this case, a
recognition of the fact that one or more gangs are resident in one's community.
It is not uncommon, however, for a police department to recognize this but withhold
the information from the rest of the
community. I encountered this situation in several cities - some of them among
the largest in their respective nations. Some of them among the
smallest. The following incident exemplifies this situation.
A retired minister had recently moved to town in order to offer a
free ministry to at-risk kids. One night the walls surrounding his church
parking lot were covered with gang graffiti. The next
day he made an appointment to visit the police gang unit supervisor
visibly shaking when he arrived.
The minister and the president of his
congregation had asked for the meeting because they wanted to learn about the gang
situation where their outreach ministry was located. The president of the congregation had been a
deputy United States Attorney. She was calm and obviously
interested in learning more. The minister, on the other hand,
The minister had several questions
to ask. "What does graffiti mean? Should I be frightened?
What precautions should be taken as we undertake our new ministry? What is the gang situation
like in my church's neighborhood? Should
I fear for my life?"
Karl, the Latino gang
specialist, sat in for the
gang unit supervisor who was out negotiating an
attempted suicide. Karl told them, in no uncertain terms, that
the neighborhood in which the ministry was located had a serious
About an hour into the meeting
the gang supervisor appeared. The minister, now more knowledgeable about
the seriousness of the gang situation in his neighborhood, asked the
supervisor "Why isn't this situation being covered in the
newspapers?" The supervisor replied "I do that on purpose. If I were to talk about the problem with the press and give the
names of gangs or adult gang members, I would be glorifying them in
the eyes of the gang members. I just won't do that."
Several days later the gang unit supervisor told me "If
we tell the press about what the gangs are doing we just feed the fire. The gang
about themselves and we end up glorifying them. I'd rather
not do that." Of course, the trade off is that the
community is left without accurate intelligence on gangs. How can a
community effectively participate in or support prevention, intervention, or
suppression efforts without accurate intelligence?
Acceptance of a gang presence may be a result of a drive-by-shooting or some other sensational and public gang-related act.
Or, as a result of a continuing problem with specific youths in a particular
neighborhood, police find they have to admit to the presence of gangs in an
effort to get other sectors of the community involved in trying to reduce
the gang members' activities. I found that many police departments created their
gang units in response to situations such as these.
This topic related to one of my most consistent findings - police
openly stated that, in order for the community's gang problem to be addressed
effectively, the entire community must get involved. "We
can't possibly handle this situation alone" was a common sentiment
shared by police at both patrol and command levels.
3. Study (a.k.a. gathering intelligence or information
Every community—regardless of the presence
or absence of hybrid gangs—should conduct a thorough assessment of its
unique gang problem before devising strategies for combating it.
et al., 2001,
While some police departments respond to their community's gang situation without
studying it first, most enter a phase of intelligence gathering and analysis
to determine where the gang problem is occurring, who the gang
members are, what they are
doing, where they live (or came from), what kinds
of vehicles they drive, the schools they are attending (if at all), their
prior criminal histories, and more. The outcome of this process then informs
the department's response, at least initially.
|Field Note: The
sheriff said his officers found that "detention personnel are an excellent source of gang
intelligence." Gang unit members in other departments often
obtain useful information from single mothers in gang neighborhoods.
"They have boyfriends they're worried about and they tell us
about them. Sometimes they're the characters we're looking
In other communities police
gathered intelligence from young girls in the community, often
children. They were the little sisters of brothers who were involved
in criminal and gang activity and were worried about them.
"They tell us what they're worried about, what their brothers
are doing, where they are, who they're with."
The intelligence function of a police gang unit or gang-dedicated officer includes the gathering, analyzing, storing, and sharing of
intelligence on gangs.
A. Gathering intelligence
There are a variety of ways in which intelligence on gangs may be gathered. The most common sources are gang members and their associates, girl friends,
the parents of gang members, teachers and school security personnel,
probation and parole officers, residents in the gang neighborhood, local
business owners, and
others who have personal contact with or knowledge of a gang and its members'
Some police departments are able to gain intelligence from juvenile detention
personnel and juvenile officers but this avenue is closed in states with
privacy rules surrounding information about minors.
Police also gather intelligence from one another including
information from patrol officers - the "front line" of local law
enforcement - from the
writings of gang members (i.e., graffiti, songs, prose), professional
articles and books on the subject of gangs, and occasionally
from the media.
B. Analyzing intelligence
intelligence on one aspect of the gang phenomenon may be of interest and of
some value, its value is enhanced when it is cross-referenced with intelligence on
another matter. For
example, knowing a member from a gang in another community is in one's town
is valuable intelligence on its own. Knowing that he or she is the
fifth gang member from that community to appear is of even greater value.
Some police departments have a unit within their organization which is
solely responsible for the analysis of crime/gang data. Others have only one
officer who struggles to make sense of it all. There are also
state-wide, regional, national, and international databases on gangs and gang
members which are used by some law enforcement agencies. These databases are often not used as often or as
effectively as some police would like. Among the reasons for this are
a lack of personnel with skills necessary to input, extract, and
interpret the data and a lack of funds to hire such a person or purchase
needed equipment (i.e., computers, long-distance telephone accounts, internet
Some of the gang unit personnel I interviewed had no interest in the
databases. The databases were perceived of as a waste of time because of the
short life-span of the information they contain (i.e., gang members move, change their
names, change cars).
C. Storing intelligence
the data has been gathered and analyzed, will it be stored on a computer or
as hard copy? As police departments become even
more overwhelmed with information, the way in which it is stored becomes critical.
It need not only be stored, access to
the information needs to be easy and immediate. Given the
insufficient level of funding for law enforcement today, these are difficult
goals to reach. The most common form of storage I saw consisted of Polaroid pictures
posted in albums or pinned to bulletin boards in the gang units'
offices. It was crude, but it was portable and readily available, unless
there was only one copy.
I was given a tour of the gang unit's office. About 600 different
gang members' portraits were prominently posted on three of the four
walls of the room. They were sorted by gang affiliation.
One entire group of pictures was upside down. Collectively,
the gang unit members called the upside down ones the "Dirt Nap
didn't know what that meant. An officer said "They're taking a
dirt nap. They're dead now."
The most valuable storage of intelligence takes place in an individual officer's mind.
Although this may sound obvious, this
simple fact points to the potential negative consequences of the following
policy. Upon promotion
from one rank to the next it was the policy of every police department I studied to transfer
the person being promoted to a unit other than the one in which he or she
was serving prior to the promotion. In other words, if an officer is
promoted while in the gang unit, he or she will most likely be transferred
to a different unit upon being promoted.
What happens to the intelligence that officer accumulated? The loss of an officer has potentially negative consequences on the
gang unit and their day-to-day operation. I raised this concern with many of the gang unit personnel with whom I rode and
found there were two different points of view on this matter.
first recognized that the loss of intelligence, and years of
experience dealing with gang members and the rest of the community, was a
serious loss to the gang unit and to efforts to reduce gang activity in
the community. On the other hand, some officers believed the loss of intelligence
was, as one commander said, a "momentary setback. After all, the gang situation is changing almost daily. New gangs form,
old ones fade away, new members join, old ones are killed, move, quit, or
get locked up. In a couple of months the entire scene may have
Promotions may also require an officer to
leave a unit to which he or she has become attached and in which they
would prefer to stay. But, as I was told, "money talks and promotions
D. Sharing intelligence
|Field Note: I found
posters hanging in the gang unit's office. Printed on the posters were
the following statements: "The careful application of terror is also a form of communication"
and "Information, to be useful, must be shared."
The sharing of intelligence is, perhaps, the most controversial aspect of
the intelligence function. With whom should police share their knowledge of the
gang situation? Only other gang unit
personnel? With other police and police units in their department?
With police in other law enforcement agencies? With the press? The community?
With parents of gang members?
Each additional level of exposure represents a challenge to a police
department and its gang unit. As the public becomes more aware of the gang
situation in its midst, there are concerns in some police gang units that their
work will be made more difficult.
a. Within the Department
More often than not, a gang unit wants to share its intelligence within
the department in hopes that other units - patrol and narcotics, for example - will keep an
eye out for and report related incidents/persons to the gang unit. The problem lies in finding ways to effectively and systematically
share the intelligence.
An integral part of sharing intelligence in the department is when
the gang unit supervisor sends his personnel to the department's
shift meetings (when police gather for a briefing about events which
may have taken place on an earlier shift prior to going out on their
By attending the briefings his officers interact and
share intelligence with patrol officers.
unit supervisor whose officers attended briefings said "While there were some jokes made at
the beginning of this process - when we first started going to
the shift meetings - eventually everyone came around. Now it's
starting to pay off and is working more smoothly.
Interaction like this is important.
It keeps my officers [the gang unit] in touch with and sharing
information with patrol officers and visa versa.
officers are the heart of any department and it's
the nature of their work to create
relationships with people all around
town, to get to know
them - including the
community's young people, whether they are gang members or
b. With Other Law Enforcement Agencies
Sharing gang intelligence with other police
agencies is equivalent to admitting one's community has a gang problem. As
this can be a barrier to intelligence sharing and it's impact
on intelligence gathering and intelligence analysis is obvious and
For police willing to share their intelligence there are several sources of information for
other law enforcement agencies are responding to their own community's gangs.
Among them are personal contacts between gang unit
officers and command personnel from different
departments (this is often facilitated by the regional gang
Since gangs do
not exist solely within city or county boundaries, and since gang
clashes all too frequently involve more than one jurisdiction, it helps
to know what gangs are active or reside in adjacent areas or
and McBride, 2000, p. 97)
They also share in-house printed and on-line reports and information
found in Police
Chief (the magazine of the International Association of Chiefs of
Police), the Regional Information Sharing Systems (RISS) Program, and publications made available by the National
Youth Gang Center, the Justice
Information Network (the National Criminal Justice Reference Service),
and the Office of Juvenile
Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Links to all these sources of
information are located at the bottom of this page under "Next."
c. With Prosecutors
Sharing gang intelligence with the local prosecutor is needed and is a vital
law enforcement's efforts to suppress gang activity.
While conducting my research I learned about "vertical prosecution" and its role in
prosecuting gang members. Vertical prosecution finds the
prosecutor who does the initial filing on a gang-related case also making the initial court
appearance and making all subsequent court
appearances in the case until it is concluded. This is called
"vertical" prosecution because only one prosecutor handles the case from beginning to end
as it moves up from the police, through the prosecutor's office, and into
and through the court.
This organizational style of prosecuting offenders has been used for many
years to prosecute murderers, organized crime figures, and other special
classes or categories of offenders.
As pertains to gangs, I interviewed several prosecutors who did not follow this
procedure for prosecuting gang members. Instead, one deputy prosecutor filed the case, another
did some of the preparatory work on it, and yet
another presented the case in court. This fragmented style of prosecution
often resulted in poorly managed cases producing undesirable results in
Using vertical prosecution, prosecutors gather more coherent
intelligence on gangs and their members and, when presenting the case in
court, may better educate the court (judges) about the
local gang situation.
A gang unit supervisor said "We work with four of the
prosecutors now. They are dedicated to handling the gang cases full
time. They've learned a lot about the gangs and they've been
educating the judges and the public about the situation. They
reach the public through
their work with grand juries and trial juries, when there
actually are trials." The supervisor thought a good case
will better educate a judge about gangs than any ride along with
the gang unit.
If vertical prosecution is not used, prosecutors may not be able to
present their cases as well since they lack sufficient intelligence about
other, related gang activity or other gang members. The court, too, gets a
fragmented picture of the gang situation in the community.
d. With Probation and Parole Officers
Probation and parole
officers, because of their often extended contact with convicted gang
members, may possess valuable intelligence about them, their associates,
activities, and the gangs to which they belong.
Police also have something to offer probation and parole officers. Some
probation/parole officers have gang clientele who are arrested while on
probation or parole. This means the police have intelligence
on what some of the probation/parole officers' gang members are doing, who they're doing it
with, and where they're doing it. All of this is important
information in the process of providing services to probationers and
Police who are willing to share intelligence with probation and
parole officers empower those officers in the delivery of services. Likewise, good relations between probation and parole officers and police
means the intelligence can flow both ways, enhancing both in their
respective positions vis a vis the gangs. It's a win-win
proposition for the community but it is often lacking due to the
hesitancy of police to share intelligence with "outsiders."
e. With the Press
Some police gang unit officers
are convinced that, should the press be told about a gang incident, they will blow the matter out of
proportion and stir undo public concern, present the information
inaccurately, or both. Such an outcome puts more pressure on the police and exposes the gang to a
wider public - giving the gang credibility, publicity, and recognition. Police in some
communities are concerned the net outcome will be a misinformed or
unduly frightened public.
f. With Others in the Community
While police are secretive by the nature of
their work, it behooves a police department to facilitate the
work of local school personnel, neighborhood association members, the governmental unit dealing with the community's parks, and
many other groups concerned about the gang situation in the community. Finding a way
to do this and not compromising police confidentiality may be difficult,
but it can be done.
Field Note: When
asked what his impression of the public was, the gang unit officer
said "The public usually has a mistaken impression of the gang
situation in their community. That's due to the press, poor police
reporting, personal denial, prejudice, and many other factors."
In an interview with a 25-year police veteran,
I was told "As far as the police are
concerned, when the press or the community inquire about
gangs, they are told 'There's no gang problem here.'"
I asked why this was done and he replied "The local
police take care of the gangs, if you know what I mean. There's
no need to get the public involved."
An informed community is a community which will support the police in
their efforts against gangs. Without community support, police may have difficulty funding
their own efforts. And if police purposely keep the public
uninformed (misinformed) about the gang situation, social service agencies and schools
attempting to reduce gang activity will also suffer in their efforts.
Having acknowledged and studied the gang situation in the community, the
next stage is planning how to deal with it and organizing the department
effective for that purpose. One way to do this is to base the initial plan upon the intelligence that was
gathered. What did the department learn about the gang situation? How many gangs
are there? Who runs with who? Are they male-dominated or are females
involved? Are they each primarily of one race or ethnicity or
mixed? Are they at war with one another or simply going about their
business peacefully? What is their business?
Are they selling drugs, stealing cars, or just hanging out (i.e.,
semi-peacefully, drinking, socializing)? Are there only a
few members in each gang or are there more? Are any of the gang members from
outside the community or are they mostly locals? The answer to
each of these questions, and many others, will determine the steps which may
be taken by the police and by others in the community to address the
Perhaps the biggest
lesson from the rapid rebound in Los Angeles gang murders, say cops and
other gang experts, is that aggressive policing alone will never break the
cycle of gang violence. "We don't need new laws," says Sergeant
Wes McBride, founder of the California Gang Investigators Association and
a 28-year veteran of anti-gang policing. "We have a penal code a foot
thick. You can't just work gangs with police suppression. You need
prevention and intervention programs too." (Yager,
September 3, 2001, p. 49)
The plans implemented by the departments I visited typically involved
gathering intelligence and exercising suppression (i.e., zero tolerance
policies and resulting arrests). In police departments which have been
dealing with gangs for a long period of time, plans also included
prevention and intervention efforts. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's
Department, for example, in addition to an aggressive suppression effort,
offers a prevention and intervention program called Vital Intervention
Directional Alternatives (VIDA - Spanish for "life"). More
information on it is offered under "Next" at the bottom of this
There are several factors which may complicate the planning process.
Among them is a change in police administrators. There are several layers of administrators
which may oversee the operations of a gang unit. Included are the Sgt. or
Corporal of the unit itself, and all the administrators to whom he or she
must report including, for example, a Lieutenant, a Captain, a Major, Deputy
Chief and the
Chief. A change in any one of the administrators may alter
the nature of the plan according to that administrator's perceptions of the
problem, abilities, preferences, beliefs, and attitudes.
Anther factor which may derail or complicate the plan is political
pressure from outside the department. The Mayor,
City Manager/Council, influential business people, the Chamber of Commerce, and many
others may enter the picture when a discussion of gangs emerges. The concern I heard mentioned most which impacted upon the plan of
a police department in dealing with gangs had to do with their potential
effect on local tourism.
A significant element in planning involves organizing the department to
more effectively implement the plan. Will there be a gang unit (comprised of
more than one officer) or just one gang officer? To whom will the officer(s)
assigned gang duties report? That, of course, depends upon where in the
organizational structure of the department the gang unit is placed. And
where it is placed will have an impact on how the unit operates as well as
how it is perceived within the department and the community.
According to the 2004 National Youth Gang Survey,
Thirty-six percent of the (2,296 law enforcement)
agencies (that responded to the survey) that experienced gang problems
in 2004, including 51 percent of larger cities (over 50,000
inhabitants), operated a specialized unit with at least two officers who
were primarily assigned to handle matters related to youth gangs. Among
gang-problem agencies that did not operate a specialized unit, 31
percent reported that one or more officers were assigned to handle gang
problems exclusively. (Highlights
of the 2004 National Youth Gang Survey, p. 2)
If the unit is placed in the S.W.A.T. (special response team) or
narcotics units, the gang unit officers are likely to be more aggressive and
will be perceived as such by gang members and the public. There's a price to
pay for that, although there may be a purpose served as well. If the gang
unit is placed in the juvenile division/unit or in criminal investigations,
it is more likely to be able to be less aggressive (or more, when needed)
and will, probably, be focused upon the juvenile element of the gang
situation in the community.
In summary, what the department learns while studying its community's
gang phenomenon should determine how the department organizes itself to deal
with it. And, as the gang situation changes, so should the way in which the
department is organized to deal with it.
Assuming a plan of action has been created, it's time to implement the
plan. If the police administrator, middle-management command personnel and the gang
unit itself are in agreement with the plan, it is likely to
succeed. This alignment, however, is not
|Field Note: One police commander told me
"What a chief of the police department wants is what the public
sees. The current chief wants arrests while his predecessor
wanted intelligence. So the gang problem looks worse under
the new chief."
In another department the
Captain overseeing the gang unit, the SWAT unit, and several others,
identified three goals he wanted his gang unit to achieve. When I
interviewed the gang unit officers I asked them what the goals of
the unit were and they listed their goals. None of the goals
identified by the Captain were mentioned.
On a more positive note, in a
community of 600,000 residents with 2,000 police officers, the gang
unit detective told me the local juvenile justice system had many
programs/agencies available for delinquents (including gang members)
and that the community was willing to put forth the resources needed
to support those agencies. He also said the department's bilingual
"gang hot line" was being used well and often resulted in informal
referrals from the department for at-risk gang youth to those
community agencies and services.
There are, of course, departments in which the goals are clear and
accepted by most of the participants. In some departments the plan of action involved several different units
narcotics, robbery) and, in some cases, the assistance of
community-based social services, legislators, and others. The plans varied widely from one community to another, as do the problems they
were facing (as determined by the intelligence that was gathered).
Evaluation here refers to determining if the plan that was developed is
actually working. It involves studying the impact of the plan on the measures of success chosen
during the planning process. Among many possible evaluation measures are a
reduction in gang activity (i.e., fewer drive-bys, the appearance of less graffiti,
fewer acts of vandalism), a reduction in the number of youths involved in gangs, or a
lessening in the severity of the crimes committed by gang members.
The evaluation process is usually on-going. That is, once in place, it is
repeated with regularity. A plan which is successful one year may be a
dismal failure the next due to changes on the street in the gang
situation. In those circumstances an on-going evaluation process
reveals when changes are needed in the plan.
Sadly, it appears that most gang unit officers have little contact with
everyday citizens. Most of their time is spent with other officers in the
gang unit. Any time spent interacting outside that unit is typically spent
with non-gang unit officers in the same department and, to a much lesser
degree, with gang members and their parents, children, etc. If we are to
believe, as many police administrators tell us today, that
community-oriented policing is what is needed to reduce gang activity (as
well as other kinds of criminal activity), then we should be seeing
police-community partnerships. As Katz and Webb note:
We concluded that the four gang units that we
studied (Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Phoenix, and Inglewood/CA) did not
engage in community policing or formal problem solving; in fact, many
gang unit officers were unclear about exactly what those terms meant.
Gang unit officers tended not to enter into partnerships within their
communities, and they were not proactive in seeking citizen input. None
had used formal problem-solving strategies to plan their approaches to
gang-related problems. (Katz
and Webb, 2004, p. 447)
My own research confirms that finding, although I observed some gang-unit
officers and patrol officers who were intensely interested in their
neighborhoods' gang problems and who did attend community meetings to hear
residents' concerns and to share some of what they knew about the problem
with the residents.
A Comment on Why Police
Gang Units are Created
Katz, Maguire, and Roncek (Katz,
et. al., 2002), in a comprehensive and excellent study of why
police gang units are created, offered three possible explanations.
"Contingency theory" hypothesizes that
organizations are rational entities, adopting
organizational structures and operation activities that are most effective
and efficient in achieving specific goals. (ibid, p. 474)
According to the contingency notion, gang units are formed as a rational
response to increased gang activity.
According to "social threat theory," the second explanation, gang units
are formed as a result of the majority population of the community (usually
Euro-Caucasians) wanting to control a threatening racial or ethnic group.
Comparing the social threat notion to their contingency notion, the
researchers hypothesize that
Social control agencies increase the intensity of their
crime control efforts as a result of the perceived threat of marginalized
populations, rather than as a result of rational considerations such as
increased levels of crime. The threat may be based on either political or
economic competition. (ibid, p. 475)
Finally, the researchers suggest "resource dependency theory" as a
hypothetical explanation for the creation of police gang units. According to
this hypothesis, gang units are created in an effort to acquire needed
resources (funding, equipment, etc.).
...organizations must obtain resources to survive, and
that to obtain these resources, they must engage in exchanges with other
organizations in their environment. To ensure survival and the flow of
resources, organizations must be political in nature and adapt strategically
to heir environment to accommodate the interests and requirements of those
with the capacity to provide resources."
In other words, police departments create gang units to obtain resources
being offered only if such a unit and a genuine gang problem exist.
In summarizing the findings of their study, Katz, Maguire, and Roncek
found that the contingency theory was not supported by their data and that
"Support for social threat theory is mixed." (ibid, p. 487)
On the other hand, they did find support for the resource dependency
If the resource dependency perspective is correct, then
those agencies receiving federal, state, or local funding to augment their
gang control efforts should be the most likely to have a gang unit. The
findings support this hypothesis, illustrating that those police
organizations receiving external funding for gang control efforts are
significantly more likely to have established a specialized police gang
unit. (ibid, p. 489)
I would offer one additional explanation. In several of the communities
in which I conducted research I was told the police gang unit was created in
response to a specific critical incident. That is, one specific,
typically horrific gang-related act occurred which drew the attention of the
community, its leaders, and/or the police to the need for a specialized gang
unit or a specialized gang officer.
In the mid-1970s the "critical incident" in San Francisco was an attempt
by three members of one Asian gang to assassinate a rival Asian gang member.
This took place in a restaurant in the heart of the city's Chinatown.
Several innocents were killed and many were wounded as the attackers used
automatic weapons to spray the inside of the restaurant. The community was
outraged and the gang unit was formed. In Mickey O'Rourke's movie entitled
Year of the Dragon, one may view Hollywood's rendition of this
infamous gang crime.
Resources: Visit the site of the Community Oriented Policing Services
(Bureau of Justice Statistics) for a comprehensive list (including links) to
a wide variety of law enforcement approaches to reducing gang activity.
You can read the most recent (April 2004) and
comprehensive report on the "Police
Response to Gangs: A Multi-Site Study."
The Chicago Police Department is utilizing
a new "Gang
Strategy Team" approach to gathering intelligence on gangs.
An example of mixing gang unit efforts with a narcotics
unit is found in the
County Narcotics and Gang Task Force, Madison (WI) Police Department.
You can read various
statutes which cleared the way for the creation of gang databases. Monikers
(the street name often given to or taken by a gang member) also form a
You can learn more about gang unit
investigator associations by visiting the National
Alliance of Gang Investigator Associations. They also gather and post
useful and insightful information on gangs. Their
Gang Threat Assessment is an excellent intelligence document.
Another method of sharing
information is through The
Police Chief, the publication of the international Association of
Chief's of Police (IACP). Some gang unit personnel also
use information posted at the sites of the National
Youth Gang Center, the Justice
Information Network (the National Criminal Justice Reference Service),
and the Office of Juvenile
Justice and Delinquency Prevention (type the word "Gang" in the
"Keyword" box and click on "Go").
Information Sharing Systems (RISS) Program is composed of six regional
centers that share intelligence and coordinate efforts against criminal
networks that operate in many locations
across jurisdictional lines.
You can learn more about
VIDA (Vital Intervention and Directional Alternatives) by reading about Sheriff Baca, Los
Angeles Sheriff's Department, as he handed out
to VIDA graduates. Even local
newspaper praise the program.
Michael K. Carlie
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