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

An Introduction to Solutions

Shortcut to the Outline of Solutions

"A comprehensive approach appears to be 
the most promising way to address gang activity."

(OJJDP, 2001, p. 15)

"Of all the responses devised by local communities to control gangs,
the establishment of specialized police gang units has become
the most common suppression strategy."
Katz and Webb, 2004, p. 12)

Field Note: I asked a Hispanic officer about the availability of programs for the local Hispanic Youth. She said "[Our city] has lots of programs for very young children and those up to 13 years of age. But from 13 to about 20 years of age we lose them. 

"The older ones want to do what all youth want to do, have fun. They want to dance in the Community Center, but the community won't accommodate them because they're afraid of them. So, the youth go out on the street and party, then they get in trouble and the vicious cycle begins."

The following illustration was presented at a regional conference of police gang investigators. It was used to show the audience how important families (identified as "Home" in the chart below), schools, and the church are to America's youth. Even though those institutions have lost influence over the years, they are still important. The rise in the influence of television and the media on our youth is, in the presenter's mind, "Associated with the rise in violence we see in our youth." From what I have learned, the rise in the influence of peers is equally concerning.

Chart 1: Factors Influencing Children's Attitudes, Values, and Behavior, by Rank and Year

Rank 1950 1980 1996
TV - Media
TV - Media
TV - Media
Source: Ken Bell, Hardcore Gang Unit, Los Angeles Bureau of Investigation.  
The study which formed the basis for this chart was conducted in 1996.

In this part of Into the Abyss we will explore a wide variety of solutions to the gang phenomenon, many of which relate to the factors identified in Chart 1 (above) which influence children's attitudes, values, and behavior. Although every child and the community he or she lives in is unique, the core causes of gang formation are shared by many.

The presentation of solutions begins with an identification of a gang presence in a community. The risk factors which cause gang formation - and some youths to join them - and the protective factors which insulate them from the risks are the next topic. Then we'll proceed to explore personal- and family-related solutions, neighborhood and community solutions, and social institutional solutions at both public and private levels.

You may note that the consideration of justice system-related solutions comes late in the process. There's a reason for this. It is only when everyone and every social institution has failed to reduce the problems which cause gangs to form that we turn to the police, courts, and correctional system. The justice system, as a mechanism of formal social control, may be able to do something with, to, or for gang members, but it can do little, if anything, to reduce the core causes of gang formation. The emphasis of the solutions presented here, therefore, is on the individual, family, neighborhood and community, and other institutions of informal social control (school, faith, business, social service, health care, government, media, and social services).

The United States Office of Justice Programs has a proven Action Plan (1996) which also involves many of a community's social institutions in the reduction of youth violence and gang activity. Previously in Into the Abyss our focus on gangs targeted the neighborhood level. The Action Plan reflects this same strategy.

The Action Plan describes how communities can generate solutions and how individuals and groups can prevent or reduce violence in their own block, public housing unit, or neighborhood. Cooperative partnerships among justice, health, child welfare, education, and social service systems can lay the foundation for measurable successes. 

Working together, individuals, groups, and communities can make real and sustained changes. The Action Plan also provides important information about Federal training, technical assistance, grants, research, evaluation, and other resources that support these efforts. (Office of Justice Programs, 1996, page)

Reducing gang activity involves many people and organizations ... it's hard work. But shared responsibility means less work for each person, social institution, and organization involved. If each component of the community participates there is hope. The secret to success - other than recognizing there is a problem and being motivated to bring about change - is to proceed towards change in an organized fashion, as was noted by one of the gang unit officers I interviewed.

Field Note: The gang unit officer told me "The killings we see now in the suburbs, like Littleton and in Arkansas, happen because the communities are in denial about gangs and the amount of youth violence. As a result, they don't develop the means to deal with these problems and their police departments aren't ready to handle these situations. 

"The police departments and the communities aren't doing anything. So the problems finally erupt. First you have to document that there is a gang, or that there are gangs in the community. Then you have to find out who is in them. Then you can proceed to do something about the problem."

In their study of gang in Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Inglewood (CA), and Phoenix, Katz and Webb found that local residents, community treatment workers and others

offered several recommendations for improving police gang unit performance, consistent with gang unit problems they had identified. This included recommendations aimed at improving communication, building better partnerships with the communities, allocating additional resources to gang units and to gang suppression efforts, and placing increased emphasis on prevention and intervention. (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. 392)

The national dialog on gang reduction identifies a five-pronged approach (OJJDP, 2004, page):

bulletPrimary prevention targets the entire population in high-crime, high-risk communities. The key component is a one-stop resource center that makes services accessible and visible to members of the community. Services include prenatal and infant care, after-school activities, truancy and dropout prevention, and job programs.
bullet Secondary prevention identifies young children (ages 7–14) at high risk and, drawing on the resources of schools, community-based organizations, and faith-based groups, intervenes with appropriate services before early problem behaviors turn into serious delinquency and gang involvement.
bullet Intervention targets active gang members, close associates, and gang members returning from confinement and involves aggressive outreach and recruitment activity. Support services for gang-involved youth and their families help youth make positive choices.
bullet Suppression focuses on identifying the most dangerous and influential gang members and removing them from the community.
bulletReentry targets serious offenders who are returning to the community after confinement and provides appropriate services and monitoring. Of particular interest are “displaced” gang members who may cause conflict by attempting to reassert their former gang roles. Of course, if no effort was made to provide treatment (i.e., educational improvement, job training, job placement, family counseling, drug counseling, etc.), the entire effort at suppression may have been a waste of time.

While there is no one best way to reduce gang activity and youth violence, some solutions make more sense in certain communities than others. I compiled the solutions for this part of Into the Abyss in hopes they would get readers to think about solutions which could be implemented in their own communities and about the resources needed to implement them. Howell and Egley (2005) offer the following cautions as concerns a community's response to gangs.

. . . a community’s initial response may inadvertently serve to prolong the existence of gang problems in at least two ways.  First, undue media attention, particularly publishing gang names, may serve to give local gangs notoriety and confirm their existence and importance. 

Second, over reliance on and excessive use of law enforcement suppression strategies may provide cohesiveness to the gang—which has been linked to increased criminal behavior.  A quick suppression response may be useful to alert members of the public’s awareness of and willingness to address the problem; however, the appropriateness of such “crackdowns” depends on the extent of violent activity on the part of the gang members. 

Community acceptance of law enforcement’s use of force against their youths may not be forthcoming if residents do no view the youths as representing a public safety threat.  Moreover, giving emergent gangs such attention may facilitate their recruitment efforts, and inadvertently give them the community presence they need to thrive. (p. 3)

As the years have passed, I have learned that suppression is a key, if not primary, first response to the presence of known and active gang members in a community. Until the active gang members are arrested and removed from the community (and hopefully change their behavior and thinking), efforts at prevention and intervention will be at risk. Criminally active gang members who are free in the community are also free to recruit, threaten and otherwise cajole others to join them in their criminality. Unless they removed, prevention and intervention efforts may be only marginally effective. The arrest of the known and criminally active gang members may actually be used as a means of encouraging others not to get involved in similar behavior.

Every community has a somewhat unique gang situation and is different in terms of the resources it may bring to the problem. Hopefully, there are at least a few solutions in what follows which would be applicable to the gang situation in your community.

NOTE: Of the solutions included in Into the Abyss, few are explained in great detail. Links to the Web from many of them, however, provide additional information. Solutions which are identified as exemplary-, model-, or promising strategies have been tested in the field and are recommended for serious consideration.

Chart 2: Solutions 
Reducing the Causes of Gang Formation

Chapter 22: Focusing on the Issue
Part 1: Determining if There is a Gang Present
Part 2: Risk and Protective Factors

Part 3: Crime Reduction and Prevention Websites

Chapter 23: Personal and Family Solutions
Part 1:
What the Individual Citizen Could Do
Part 2: What Families Could Do
Part 3: What Reformed Gang Members Could Do

Chapter 24: Neighborhood or Community Solutions
Part 1: What Neighborhood Residents Could Do
Part 2: Building Coalitions: The Need for Coordination and Cooperation
Part 3: The Community Forum (Possible Forum Topics)
Part 4:
Creating a Community Task Force on Gangs
Part 5:
The Community-Based Youth Agency
Part 6: The Adopt an Agency Program

"A gang is only as strong as a community allows it to be." 
(Will County [IL] Sheriff's Department, page, 2009)

Chapter 25: Social Institution Solutions

Public Sector
Part 1: What Schools Could Do
Part 2: What Government Could Do
Part 3: What the Justice System Could Do
Part 4: What Youth-Serving Agencies Could Do

Private Sector
Part 5: What the Faith Community Could Do
Part 6: What Businesses and Business Organizations Could Do
Part 7: What the Health Care Community Could Do
Part 8: What the Media Could Do

Chapter 26: Web-Based Materials on Reducing Gang Activity


© 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.