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

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
© 2002
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

Part 1:
Determining if a Gang is Present

Click on the topics below or 
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Are there gangs in your community?


Talk With Those Who Know


Look For Telltale Signs
Physical Signs
|Behavioral Signs


Where are the Gangs?


What are they doing?


Now what?

Are there gangs in your community?

One of the best initial strategies for reducing gang activity in any community is to learn where it is taking place, who's involved, what they are doing, why they're doing it, and what the community's resources are that could be brought to bear upon the situation. In most cases, gang activity will be confined to certain neighborhoods. If you already know gangs are present, you need not read this Part any further. If, on the other hand, you're not sure, please take a look at the National Youth Gang Center's publication A Guide to Assessing Your Community’s Youth Gang Problem.

Talk With Those Who Know

Other than personal exposure to gangs, the best source of information on whether a given neighborhood has gangs are local juvenile officers, probation/parole officers, and police. Due to the nature of their work they are "in the know." In some communities, there are barriers between the public and local criminal justice practitioners, teachers, and others who could talk about the gang situation but are afraid to do so or have been instructed not to talk about them by their supervisors, local politicians, or influential business leaders, among others.

Whether juvenile officer, probation/parole officers, or police tell you about the gangs may be a matter of office politics. They may have been told by their administrators that they are not to talk about the subject of "gangs" with the public. More often than not, if a good working relationship is established with the officers, they will be forthcoming. After all, they entered their line of work to help people and know that a community willing to address the gang situation will, in the long run, benefit everyone.

Prosecutors, youth-serving agency personnel, school administrators, and others may also be forthcoming if the setting is right. Other than meeting with these people individually, a public mechanism for obtaining needed information is a community forum. We'll return to that topic a little later.

Look For Telltale Signs

One can also tell if gangs are present by the graffiti they create. It can sometimes be found on the back of business buildings, in alleyways, on the back of street signs, on sidewalks, on large and small metal trash containers, and on utility-type poles. If the gang thinks it dominates an area, the graffiti may be more conspicuously placed such as on the front of a building at a major intersection or on the corner mailbox. There are as many places to post graffiti as there are flat surfaces.

While most people don't know how to interpret graffiti, they can sense there's a difference between "Bob loves Sue" and Btk 187. What they may not know is that "BTK" is the tag (graffiti) for an Asian gang called Born To Kill and the number "187" refers to California Penal Code 187: murder. It is possible that a BTK member created that graffiti and is indicating the gang's intention to commit a murder or, if the BTK is crossed out, that someone from a rival gang is about to murder a member of the BTK.

Field Note: The setting is a city of nearly 700,000 residents. Graffiti can be found on nearly every building in the central part of the city and extends from ground level to nearly six feet up the buildings' walls. It has been accumulating in some areas for the past ten years (some of the graffiti was dated by its creators and the dates are still visible).

My assignment was to take a police captain and a police social research director through their neighborhood and interpret the graffiti for them. Until I had arrived, they had paid no attention to it. Nor had any of the other police in the city. "We never thought of it as meaning anything," the captain said.

We entered an alley and found graffiti that looked like this: OW

I was pointing to it and telling the officers about what it might mean when a group of boys strolled by. I would guess that the oldest one among them was 10 years old. They passed us then stopped and turned around to face the captain. The oldest one suddenly threw up a hand sign indicating OW with his fingers.

He held his hands proudly on his chest as he leaned backwards, cocked his head to the side, and said "Old West!" We were, of course, in a section of town referred to as the "Old West."

The expression of pride on his face was unmistakable. After a pause of several seconds, the captain and researcher began talking with the boys about what the other graffiti on the wall meant and my job was finished. The graffiti meant something to the boys. And now it meant something to the police: There are groups of boys in the neighborhood who perceived of themselves as a gang.

If the graffiti is unintelligible, residents should ask local juvenile officers, probation/parole officers, and police what it means. Maybe you noticed some graffiti on a child's school notebook, or some children are wearing - or avoiding wearing - a certain color of clothing. Perhaps you saw a child make a gesture with his or her fingers with which you were unfamiliar. The child could be throwing signs, possible evidence of that child's knowledge of gangs.

Other than being identified as or admitting that one is a gang member, other indicators of possible youth involvement in a gang are listed below. None are proof of gang membership, just possible indicators.

Physical Signs

bulletTattoos or branding of the body with distinctive designs, logos, or names.

bulletChanges in hair or dress style and/or having a group of friends who have the same hair or dress style.

bulletChanges in dress with a preference for clothes of a certain color and to the exclusion of another color (i.e., prefers blue and will not wear red).

bulletWearing clothes with certain team logos or names (i.e., "BK" stands for British Knights, a popular line of clothing, but it also stands for "Blood Killer"). Your local police, juvenile officer, or probation/parole officer can tell you what various brand and team logos mean in gang lexicon.

bulletWearing a hat tilted to one side or the other, rolling up one cuff more than the other or wearing a belt buckle to one side or the other. Historically, Bloods and Crips wore their hats, belts, etc., to one side or the other.

bulletThe presence of firearms, ammunition, or other deadly weapons.

bulletSigns of initiation, including shaved heads, new tattoos, bruises, cuts, and lacerations.

bulletPhotographs of your child and others displaying gang hand signs, weapons, cash, drugs, or gang-type clothing. 

bulletGraffiti on or around your residence, especially in a child's room such as on walls, furniture, clothing, notebooks, etc. This may also include drawings and "doodling" of gang-related figures, themes of violence, or gang symbols.

bulletPossessing  money and other belongings in excess of what you know he or she can afford.

bulletDrawing gang symbols and using gang handwriting (usually graffiti-like, hard to decipher, and characterized by crossed out or upside-down letters).

Behavioral Signs

bulletA significant change in personality and behavior in a relatively short period of time.

bulletDefying authority and breaking the rules of the house (staying out after being told to be home, breaking curfew, associating with peers and going to places which are "off limits").

bulletChanges in normal routines such as not coming home after school or staying out late at night with no explanation.

bulletDeveloping a whole new set of friends in a relatively short period of time.

bulletPreferring to be called by a new nickname or gang moniker

bulletWanting to be alone, withdrawing from involvement with family and others. 

bulletAssociating with peers who seem to be troublemakers and who exhibit other indicators as found on this list.

bulletImitating gangster talk and styles of talking - trying to mimic what he or she thinks a gang member is.

bulletA new fear of police. 

bulletPhone threats to the family from rival gangs (or unknown callers) directed against your child.

bulletListening to gangsta rap or watching videos/movies and reading books with hate themes or a great deal of violence. 

bulletUsing alcohol and illegal drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, crack, and methamphetamine.

bulletShowing signs of physical injury and lying about events surrounding the injury.

bulletUsing strange language or slang, especially when certain letters of words are substituted (like "flue" for "blue," in Crip slang, because Crips will not use the letter "B" - it stands for their supposed enemy gang, the Bloods).

bulletDeveloping behavior, discipline, and performance problems in school. Declining grades, being truant, or dropping out of school. 

bulletA new found sense of bravery, bragging that he/she is too tough to be "messed" with.

bulletA sudden change in attitude about school, church, or other normal activities.

While not every youth who exhibits the gang identifiers listed above is a gang member, seeing a youth who exhibits several of the identifiers should raise one's curiosity as to what's going on. If it's your child, talk to him or her first before you jump to any conclusions. Then talk with someone who can give you more information (i.e., a juvenile officer, probation/parole officer, police, your child's teacher).

Where are the Gangs?

If there is a gang in your community, where is it? If my experience in the field applies to your situation, you can pin point the

(s) in your community in which gang members live. This information should be available from juvenile officers, probation/parole officers, and police. While you may not be given names and addresses, their general location may be revealed.

By focusing on neighborhoods in which concentrations of gang youth live you can focus your solution efforts as well. That's a practical and cost effective way of approaching the problem. That's what police do when targeting gangs and gang members for surveillance or for sweeps. Why not use the same method in a treatment approach?  Miller (2001) believes this is precisely what we need to do. His study of where gang members live (by city and county throughout the United States) allows us to focus on prevention, intervention, and suppression efforts where they are most needed by "identifying the 'hotspots' of gang activity." (Miller , 2001, p. 4)

Information on the whereabouts of gang members can also be deduced from conversations with schools administrators and a review of data on school suspensions for fighting. I say this because neighborhood schools having the most difficulty may have gang members living in their neighborhoods. The fights, therefore, are sometimes gang-related (i.e., settling disputes, carrying out initiations). The only exception to this rule would be if students are bused from one neighborhood to another in order to attend school. But there are still ways to trace in-school fighting incidents back to the neighborhoods in which the fighters live.

Youth-serving community-based agency personnel and juvenile officers are also able to identify particular neighborhoods in a community from which they receive most of their problem-behavior clientele.

Another way to determine if gangs may be present is through data on drug-related arrests. The drugs of concern are usually methamphetamine, crack cocaine, and marijuana. Not all gangs or gang members deal in drugs and those that do may be involved in other drugs as well. Your local police department assembles an annual report on persons arrested (which it then sends to the Federal Bureau of Investigation or Bureau of Justice Statistics). That report should reveal if drug sales are being conducted in your community as measured by drug-related arrests. In what neighborhoods are those arrests being made? Is that where the gang members live?

Most people who live in public housing projects and high-turnover immigrant housing developments are decent, law-abiding people. These areas are also hotbeds of activity for gangs. If there are large public housing projects in your community you can determine if gangs are present by talking with the project manager or the patrol officers who work that beat. You could also take a drive around the vicinity and look for signs of possible gang activity (i.e., graffiti, groups of youths loitering during school hours, open-air drug sales).

What are they doing?

We already know the kinds of crimes gangs commit. You need to know what kinds of crimes gang members in your neighborhood commit. Police patrol officer knows who the local gang members are and what they're doing. Perhaps it's time to get a few of the neighbors together and request a meeting with the patrol officer(s) in question.

You could help matters by keeping a record of criminal or suspicious activity taking place in your neighborhood. If enough neighbors do this, then present the information to the police, something positive may be done about the problem. It may be only a short-term solution (a few individuals are approached by the police and encouraged to cease and desist in their undesirable behaviors), but it may also lead to long-term solutions as a basis for conversation and action in a community forum or task force meeting. 

You may even form a Neighborhood Watch group. The National Neighborhood Watch Institute provides some valuable information on their homepage. The National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) has a very informative web site which provides suggestions on how to organize a Neighborhood Watch program and what it takes for such a program to be successful.

Now what?

Once you've determined there is a gang presence in your neighborhood or community you can probably assume there are several reasons why the gangs formed. In the parlance of community-based social work, the reasons for their formation are referred to as risk factors and the factors which inhibit a youth's attraction to gangs are called protective factors. That is our next subject.


Additional Resources: Crime in the United States (sometimes referred to as The Uniform Crime Reports) is published annually by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In it is arrest data, as well as other information, gleaned from thousands of different law enforcement agencies.

There's much more information on the early signs of gang involvement or serious gang involvement to help someone determine if a child is involved in a gang. The Los Angeles Police Department also has information that may be helpful in terms of identifying preteen involvement in gangs.

© 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.