Into The Abyss:
A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
© 2002
Michael K. Carlie
Continually updated.

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Home | Foreword | Preface | Orientation

What I Learned | Conclusions
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Part 1:
Stages in the Police Response to Gangs

In the material that follows I've tried to identify the various stages through which police departments may pass 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.

Click on the topics below or 
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Acknowledgement  >>  Study  >>  Planning  >>  Implementation  >> Evaluation

A Comment on Why Police Gang Units are Created

1. Denial 

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 denial dominates."

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. What we have today is not nearly as serious." 

Field 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 Chicago."  

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.

D. Fear

Neighborhood 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 dangerous.

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 self image.

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 not. 

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.

2. Acknowledgement

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.

Field Note: 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 and was 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, was frightened.   

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 gang situation.

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 members read 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 gathering)

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. (Starbuck, et al., 2001, page)

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 for."

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' activities. 

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

While 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 connections).

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

Once 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.

Field Note: 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 Gang." I 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. 

The 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 changed."

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 walk."

D. Sharing intelligence

Field Note: I found two 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.  

Field Note: 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 own shift). 

By attending the briefings his officers interact and share intelligence with patrol officers. A gang 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

"Patrol 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 not."

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 mentioned above, this can be a barrier to intelligence sharing and it's impact on intelligence gathering and intelligence analysis is obvious and disastrous.  

For police willing to share their intelligence there are several sources of information for learning how 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 investigators associations).

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 jurisdictions. (Jackson 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 part of 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 court.   

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.

Field Note: 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 parolees.  

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. 

4. Planning

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., gathering 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 situation.

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 page.

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.

5. Implementation

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 assured.   

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 (i.e., juvenile, 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).

6. Evaluation

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 explanation.

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.


Additional 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 Dane County Narcotics and Gang Task Force, Madison (WI) Police Department.

You can read various state 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 database. G

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 2005 National 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").

The Regional 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 diplomas to VIDA graduates. Even local newspaper praise the program.

© 2002 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.