Stages in the Police
Response to Gangs
Police departments may be characterized as passing
through several phases on their way to having effective anti-gang activity measures. The steps, in order, include
denial, acknowledgement, study, planning, implementation, and
Denial is a barrier to effective action and
may be the result of many forces acting upon the police. But,
once the gang situation is acknowledged and information
is gathered concerning its
nature and extent, it is possible to devise plans to reduce gang
Police recognize that
arrests alone will not reduce gang activity to acceptable levels.
The entire community, and its various social institutions, must be
involved for this to occur.
Where is the Gang Unit Located?
Where a gang unit is located within a law enforcement organization
will determine what gang members are arrested for and, as a
result, the perception the community has regarding its gangs. If the
gang unit is located in the juvenile
division, gang members are perceived of as troubled youth. If it is located in
narcotics, gang members are viewed as substance abusers and the gang
"problem" is drugs.
A community's approach to reducing gang activity is typically
based upon its perception of what the problem is. Clearly, the
location of the gang unit is critical if a accurate perception of
the "problem" is to be found.
The Purpose of a Gang Unit
There are four possible stances one could take regarding
gangs. The first is denial - "There are no
gangs in my community." The second is to acknowledge a gang
presence and try to prevent non-gang members from
joining one. The third is an attempt to intervene with
gang members in an effort to bring them out of the gang. Finally,
one may act to suppress gang activity by
arresting and convicting gang members.
The purpose of a gang unit is to suppress gang activity. This is
typically accomplished by gathering intelligence on gang
members, conducting investigations of known criminal activity, and making arrests. Most police I encountered openly acknowledged that suppression
(arrest and conviction) alone will not solve a
community's gang situation. People who work in the corrections stage
(i.e., probation/parole, institutionalization, etc.) must offer
effective treatment programs following suppression.
a Gang Unit
My limited observations suggest that police training
curricula omit information about community-based prevention and
intervention efforts. While this is understandable in the context of
their primarily suppressive function, where prevention or
intervention efforts might be beneficial, police are left unaware of
what their respective communities provide.
What I did learn is that there are important questions which must
be answered if police are to be adequately prepared to deal with the
gang situation in their community. Included are: Does police academy
training include content on street gangs? Does the police academy
include a sufficient amount of material on gangs? Are newly assigned
gang unit officers provided training? Are existing gang unit
officers offered on-going training? Are police personnel outside the
gang unit provided training on gangs? If training is offered, who
As evidenced by the departments I visited, there is little on-going
training for officers working gangs.
of a Police Gang Unit
Tactics used by police gang officers or gang units include
prevention and intervention but primarily consist of suppressive
efforts. Some are designed to deter gang activity
while others are designed to gather intelligence or arrest
Collaboration and cooperation within and between
law enforcement agencies appears to be increasing as is collaboration and
cooperation between law enforcement agencies and community-based task
force groups. These community-wide task force groups, while
unproven in their impact on gang activity, do provide a forum within
which police may establish contacts in the community (outside of law
enforcement) and through which the public may learn more about the
local gang situation.
Police Perceptions of the Gang Situation
Although their perceptions of the gang situation are influenced by
personal experience with gang members and their parents or
guardians, police have a realistic view of the situation in
the community's they serve. I believe they have accurately identified poor parenting and lack
of parenting skills as a major contributor to delinquency and gang involvement. They also recognize the role the
community plays in creating an environment which is not family
friendly (i.e., poor schools, lack of employment, racism and
Some police stereotype gang members and, as a result,
are likely to include among them youths who are not gang members.
They may associate with youths who are gang members, but they do not commit crimes nor identify themselves
as part of "the gang." I understand why some police stereotype them (it's easier
and after a while they all
start to look the same). But it results in errors in judgment
and children's futures are at stake.
Police Perceptions of "The
The police observed for this study shared a disdain for the
very system of justice of which they are an integral part. Laws were
viewed as difficult to enforce, prosecutors as playing a
game in which winning and efficiency are paramount, judges as blind to the
gang situation, and juvenile courts emasculated when it comes to dealing with gang members
who are minors.
Related to Working Gangs
There are many difficulties faced by police when dealing with
gangs. Among them are those within their own agency and include a) internecine competition between officers and units,
b) poor communication between patrol officers and gang
unit officers, c) the requirement that, upon promotion, officers be moved out of their units, d) the shifts during which the gang unit
works, and e) evaluating the effectiveness of the police gang unit
or gang officer.
difficulties arise when a gang unit in one department attempts to
work with another law enforcement agency. Some departments are
unwilling to participate in a collaborative
effort for fear of having their turf invaded by another agency.
arise from having limited resources with which to respond
effectively to the gang situation. Among the
resources in short supply are personnel (gang units which are too
small for the situation they face), funding for communications
equipment and databases, and a shortage of community-based
prevention and intervention programs to which police may refer some
of the gang members they encounter.
danger police face in working gangs and the impact of local politics
on the gang unit's efforts are additional difficulties. Gangs present the police with
certain problems including the clandestine and devious nature of
their activity, constant lying, and movement within and between
The cultural and language barriers which exist
between police and gang members from various ethnic groups also
complicates the work of police gang units. In some situations, the
gang unit is dealing with cultural clashes between gangs
rather than with more traditional criminal gang activity.
When a Police Gang Unit "Crosses
Seeing how some gang unit officers
dealt with gang members on the street and in interrogations was one
of the most interesting and disturbing parts of my
research. It was interesting because it provided me
with real life examples of how police interaction towards gang
members on the street impacts the way in which gang members
relate, or fail to relate, to police. It was disturbing because it
showed the "other side" of some police - the side that is
rude, impatient, unnecessarily violent, and criminal.