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

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

~ Table of Contents ~
Home | Foreword | Preface | Orientation

What I Learned | Conclusions
End Note |
| Appendix
Site Map / Contents
| New Research

Up-To-Date Gang-Related News

Conclusions - Part 4

Section III: Gangs and the Response of the Justice System

Gang-Related Legislation

In addition to using existing laws to suppress gang activity, legislation at municipal, state, and federal levels has expanded to address the growing gang situation in the United States. Enhancements to various laws have increased potential punishments for their violators and new laws have been passed which identify, include, and criminalize gang-related activities (i.e. graffiti, gang recruitment).

It is difficult to tell if this approach has been successful in reducing gang activity. Of concern is the net impact of lengthy prison sentences which cause gang members to be thrown together in prison for years without effective treatment. There is, rather, a concern that incarceration may accelerate gang activity as gang members are released from prison and reenter their old neighborhoods.

Perhaps one of the greatest shortcomings of state legislatures is their failure to recognize the role of juveniles in gang formation and gang activity. Absenting juveniles from gang-related legislation has handicapped the justice system and continues to threaten communities which, as a result, are left to face juvenile gang members with few legal tools at their command in on order to restrict their behavior.

The Police Response to Gangs

A review of Katz's and Webb's research on four American gang units revealed that the police gang units studied exhibited an absence of control and accountability over their officers. At three of the four research sites the researchers found a lack of gang-unit-specific "policies, procedures, or rules guiding officer behavior, and the few policies and procedures that did exist were modest in scope and nature." (Katz and Webb, 2004, p.  x)  As if to compound matters and make them worse, the researchers found that "the gang units ... lacked adequate performance measures ... and were hard pressed to offer specific evidence of the units' effectiveness." (Katz and Webb, 2004, p.  x)

The also found that gathering and collecting intelligence was the principal commodity produced by the gang units studied and consumed most of their working time. Interestingly, they found that "almost no one ... believed that gang unit suppression efforts were effective at reducing the communities' gang problems." (Katz and Webb, 2004, p.  xii)

The gang units were decoupled (disconnected both organizationally and strategically) from the remainder of their respective police agencies. "This resulted in several negative consequences, limiting the capacity and effectiveness of the units." (Katz and Webb, 2004, p.  xiii) The researchers found that the decoupling of the gang units from the rest of the police organization led gang unit officers to isolate themselves from the rest of the department and from the community. It reduced the unit's ability to provide needed information and to receive information from other units in the department.

Finally, Katz and Webb also found the gang units studied did not practice community-oriented policing. Instead, they were, in many ways, isolated from the neighborhoods they served. Contact with everyday citizens were rare.

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 evaluation. 

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 activity. 

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.

Training 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 provides it?

As evidenced by the departments I visited, there is little on-going training for officers working gangs.

Tactics 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 offenders.

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 discrimination).

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 System"

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.

Difficulties 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.

Other 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.

Difficulties also 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.

The 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 communities.

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 the Line"

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.

Prosecutors, Courts, and "The System"

In an effort to deal efficiently and effectively with gangs, prosecutors across the country are expanding their vertical prosecution model by creating specialized gang units to prosecute alleged gang members.

Some prosecutors have enhanced their operations by proactively dealing with the gang situation in their respective communities. They work with police on the street gathering information from witnesses to alleged gang activity. 

Prosecutors and the courts face a number of difficulties related to gangs including, but not limited to, police mismanagement of cases and problems related to out-of-date juvenile codes. Prosecutors (and police, for that matter) have had their hands tied when it comes to serious juvenile offending. Prosecutors are restricted from viewing the records of juvenile offenders and certification procedures for waiving juvenile offenders to criminal court are technically difficult, time consuming, and depend, in most cases, on a judge's decision.

The American juvenile- and criminal-justice systems are struggling to deal with the gang phenomenon. The juvenile justice system still operates as though youths are "kids" - those sweet, innocent little creatures who just need a little attention to divert them from wrongdoing. The reality of the situation, particularly among juvenile gang members, has nothing to do with that stereotype.

There are prosecutors who care a great deal about children and who would like to support any effort to get them help rather than prosecute and incarcerate them. A shortage of police and community-based prevention and intervention programs frustrate that goal. 

Judges appear removed from the reality of the streets and gangs and, according to the prosecutors, police, and probation/parole officers I interviewed, often hand out inappropriate sentences. Judges, too, are often left without recourse to incarceration due to a lack of meaningful alternative treatments in the community. 

Probation and Parole

The Difference Between Probation and Parole and their "Conditions

Probation is a sentence in lieu of incarceration whereas someone on parole received a conditional early release from prison. One may think probationers are less serious offenders than parolees because they didn't get a prison sentence. The fact is that many offenders have been through the system several times so some probationers have served one or more prison terms before they were sentenced to probation for a new offense.

The conditions of probation and parole are similar and extensive, although observations in the field suggest several of them can be violated without serious repercussions. In addition to standard conditions of probation and parole, gang members may have special conditions imposed.

In all cases, probation or parole may be revoked if the violation of one or more conditions is sufficiently egregious.

The Goals of Probation and Parole

The goals probation and parole officers set for their clients are similar and, in the most favorable outcome, result in modifying the offenders' behavior so that they stop violating the law.

What Probation and Parole Officers Do with Gang Clientele

For the most part, probation and parole officers today act as brokers between their clients (in this case, gang members) and agencies in the communities which offer social services to prevent or intervene in their clients' gang involvement. In order to do this, probation and parole officers must know which of their clients are gang members which programs are available in the community to help them. Probation officers who have a caseload of gang clients should receive special training in order to acquire this knowledge.

Probation and parole officers may or may not be assigned a gang case load. Even though police and prosecutors may both have special units to deal with gang members, there is no requirement that a probation and parole office similarly organize its efforts. I believe this is a mistake.

Among the greatest needs of most gang-member-clientele are help with anger management, counseling for their prior abuse, substance abuse intervention, education, job training, job placement, and housing assistance. For both male and female gang members I would add sex education, family planning, and parenting classes. 

At least three ingredients are needed in order to successfully treat gang- and non-gang members who are on probation or parole: the community must be sufficiently concerned to provide adequate treatment services, probation and parole officers must know which services are available, and offenders must be motivated to change their behavior.

In addition to simply "being there" for their gang clientele, probation and parole officers sometimes provide in-house intervention programs. In addition, electronic monitoring (house arrest), home visits, and the imposition of "conditions of probation and parole" are designed to limit their clients' gang-related activity.

I found little evidence of an evaluation process for determining whether the efforts of probation and parole officers to reduce gang formation, gang joining, or criminal gang activity were effective. The same was true for the efforts of police, prosecutors, judges, and jail/prison administrators.

A "Typical" Morning of Office Visit

While some probation and parole officers may have a less harried schedule, the officers I visited typically were pressed for time during office visits with their clients due to having too many clients, too few resources for dealing with them, and too many other obligations (i.e., attending court, writing pre-sentence investigation reports, endless paperwork, participating in other work-related community activities).

The Difficulties of the Job

Probation and parole officers are both police and social workers. This schizophrenic situation complicates their relationship with gang members (and other clientele). It requires the presentation of two entirely different personas and leaves clients feeling suspicious and distrustful.

Case overload, poor pay, limited training, and poor management by their supervisors contribute to the difficulties of being a probation and parole officer. Working with fellow officers who have little knowledge of gangs and problems inherent to working with gang members also presents a problem.  

The lack of throughcare for gang members is an undesirable situation. Structure and consistency is what was missing in many gang members' lives and failure to provide them while under the supervision of the court is unfortunate.

The relationships I witnessed between police gang unit personnel and probation and parole officers was, in many instances, poor. Police withheld information about gangs and gang members often leaving probation and parole officers in the blind. If the gang-member-client was an adult, probation and parole officers seemed open with police about their cases. When clients were juveniles, however, information did not flow as freely, much to the chagrin of the police.

Additional difficulties were encountered by probation and parole officers if the communities in which they worked were either in denial about gangs or were stingy about supporting community-based prevent and intervention programs.

Counselors and Community-Based Treatment Programs

Psychological counseling for gang members may be beneficial, it all depends upon the level of motivation of the gang member and the expertise of the counselor. Issues typically found bound together in these offenders include their membership in a dysfunctional family, substance abuse, child abuse, low self-esteem, and barriers between the client and therapist as a result of gang loyalty or other gang influences.

Generally speaking, most communities included in this study did have community-based social services designed to help at-risk youth. Their funding, however, was often insufficient and unstable, staff were poorly paid, and their client base was too large to allow for much individual attention, although agency personnel thought individual attention was important to offer.

The reality of the matter is that the consequences of child abuse and substance abuse are difficult to overcome. Treatment may be long-term and expensive, and this client population (gang members) has neither spare time nor money. What time and money they do have is dedicated to working, paying bills, and who knows what else.

I was struck by the dedication of many probation and parole officers and the people who worked in community-based social service agencies. The situation they face, however, often takes its toll in burnout.

I don't know if things are going to get better, stay the same, or get worse. That's the next topic.


2002 Michael K. Carlie
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