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

Topic 2a:
Law Enforcement Solutions

Some police departments have developed community-oriented strategies, with considerable attention to community collaboration, social intervention, and even opportunity enhancement. Police officers assigned to the gang problem have directly provided counseling, job development and referral, and tutoring, and have engaged in extensive community relations and development activities. 

In some cites where these more complex approaches have been tried, some evidence shows a decline in the youth gang problem. But it is not clear whether the decline was due to changed police strategies or alternate but unrelated structural changes in the community environment, such as more legitimate jobs becoming available or greater access to income producing drug trafficking. (Spergel et. al., 1994, p. 8)

When it comes to gangs, police are first responders - they are often the first justice system practitioners to encounter gang members. They encounter them as a result of a call for service from someone or because they see them while on patrol. Short of questioning, detaining (juveniles), arresting (adults), interrogating, or testifying against gang members, what do police do with or for them? As it ends up, they do a number of things. As mentioned in our discussion of police tactics, some police are involved in prevention and intervention with gang members or youths who look like they're headed in that direction.

I also found some police departments who simply tried to sweep the gang situation under the carpet in hopes that it would go away. 

Field Note: A Statistical Solution to the Gang Situation
The rumor that this town once had the highest concentration of gang members in the United States is, according to all three gang unit members, not true. They explained that, when the department scrambled to deal with the then new gang problem in the late 1980s, the original response was to deny there was a problem.

In time, the department had to acknowledge what everyone else could then clearly see - there were gangs. The department initiated a process of identifying who the gang members were. The criteria used to accomplish this were so broad that more people were included than perhaps should have been.

Since that time the department has "refined the criteria," as I was told, and, using this new definition, the number of documented gang members has been reduced. One of the most important changes was making a distinction between "active" and "inactive" gang members. An inactive gang member is someone with whom the police have had no interaction for two years.

Later in the evening two of the gang unit members explained that this was a somewhat problematic distinction since, during those two years, the individual " may simply not have been caught doing illegal things or the individual may have been gang banging in another city or state" Given the high mobility rate of gang members, this concern is real.

"And the individual may have been in prison and could be gang banging there," one officer said. Another of the unit members expressed his concern that, due to the political flack kicked up by the presence of gangs, "The new criteria being used were implemented to simply make it look like the problem was being reduced. It's all a matter of playing around with definitions and statistics ... the problem is still there. When the people of the community heard there were about 2,500 gang members in town [under the old definition] we heard 'You have to get that number down!' Of course, one way to do that is to manipulate the criteria being used."

While in the gang unit's office I asked where the gang member mug shots were. A gang unit member said "The new Deputy Chief came in and told us to take 'em down! No reason was given. The room is even secured, so we were the only ones who saw them! This is the same Deputy Chief who instigated the revamping of the criteria used to classify someone as a gang member." 

Several of the communities I visited had police departments which had adopted a problem-oriented approach to policing. More often than not, the approach was limited to one or two units within the police department, rather than being an overarching orientation of the entire department. The Juvenile Unit, Gang Unit, and Community-Oriented Policing Unit were most likely to have a problem-oriented approach.

Problem-Oriented Policing offers the police a model for addressing the underlying conditions that create and cause other problems of concern to the community. (Source: Lancashire Constabulary, United Kingdom, page, off the Internet as of November, 2005.)

As opposed to the traditional incident-oriented approach of police (e.g., a crime incident is reported to the police, the police respond, another incident is reported, the police respond, etc.), the problem-oriented approach involves at least nine distinct steps or phases. It is believed that the problem-oriented approach is more effective than the incident-oriented approach at reducing the underlying problems which are causing crime to occur. The nine steps are as follows:

The Nine Steps in Problem-Oriented Policing

Step 1  

Conduct normal incident-oriented policing (i.e., respond to calls-for-service to report crimes and arrest offenders).

Step 2  

Gather call-for-service (records of when people call the police to report a crime) and arrest data. While every law enforcement agency will follow Steps 1 and 3, only those with a problem-oriented approach are likely to add the additional steps found below.

Step 3  

Present the data to the community. The purpose here is to alert the community as to the amount and kinds of crimes occurring in their area as known to the police.

Step 4   From the community, solicit the causes of the criminality they are experiencing. Although law enforcement officials often have good and accurate insights as to why certain kinds of crimes are occurring in a given neighborhood, the residents, too, have something to contribute. And by contributing, they take ownership of the process.
Step 5   From the community, solicit possible solutions to the underlying causes of crime as found in Step 4. The police have ideas as to how to solve certain problems which cause crimes to occur. So do the neighborhood residents.
Step 6   The police then implement police-related solutions, where possible (i.e., increase the amount of patrol, introduce foot- or bike patrol, lengthen the number of months or years officers serve in a certain neighborhood so they come to know the residents better, etc.)
Step 7   For the non-police-related solutions (i.e., increase street lighting, force absentee landlords to maintain their rental properties, repair broken sidewalks and curbs, remove trash and derelict cars, etc.), the police provide contact information needed to bring about the non-police-related solutions.
Step 8   Community members must then take responsibility for contacting the necessary authorities to implement their non-police-related solutions.
Step 9   Evaluate the effectiveness of the solutions and revisit the "causes" and "solutions" if there has been no improvement.

What follows is a brief description of some of the more effective ways in which police may participate in reducing gang activity and youth violence. Links are provided to many of the programs.


If law enforcement agencies are to effectively address the problems posed by newly emerging youth gangs, they must understand the differences that distinguish them from the stereotypical concept of traditional gangs. (Starbuck, et al., 2001, page)

Public Relations Solutions


Acknowledging the presence of gangs:
Police administrators who refuse to publicly admit the presence of gangs may present more of a potential threat to the community they serve than do the gang members. If a community is left in the blind, its residents will not organize to address the gang situation.

A promising strategy for reducing gang activity and youth violence is for police administrators to admit the presence of a gang as soon as they believe they are present. The presence of a gang is not the fault of the police. It's the entire community's responsibility and admitting that there are gangs is healthy for the community. Acceptance is the necessary first step in reducing gang activity in any community.

Police administrators should openly, assertively, and regularly disseminate gang activity and youth violence information to the public for their consideration. Gang activity and youth violence are community problems, not the problem of the agency reporting about them. Without accurate and up-to-date information, the public can not respond to youth violence and gangs in a meaningful way.


Providing the community with meaningful gang-related statistics:
(2000) put it best when he wrote "Each city's gang program should be supported by a gang information system that provides sound and current crime incident data that can be linked to gang members and used to enhance police and other agency interventions. At a minimum, law enforcement agencies must ensure that gang crimes are coded separately from nongang crimes so that these events can be tracked, studied, and analyzed to support more efficient and effective antigang strategies." (Howell, 2000, p. 53)

Internal Policy Solutions

bulletMaking it policy:
Include a statement in the police department's operating guidelines or mission statement regarding a goal to reduce gang activity and youth violence. This makes their reduction a matter of policy. This policy should also be reflected in the recruitment, selection, and training of new officers as well as in on-going training, promotions, and the awarding of honors and commendations.

bulletIncluding the subject of gangs in academy and on-going training:
Dedicate an appropriate amount of time in the police academy curriculum to the subject of gangs: what a gang is, what a gang member is, the names of local gangs, where they live, the kinds of activities in which they are involved, tactics for dealing with gang members, and whatever other information is needed. Knowledge is a powerful tool and a lack of it plays into the hands of the gang members.

bulletCreating the position of gang officer or create a gang unit:
If your community is an emerging- or chronic-gang community, it should have one or more police officers dedicated to dealing with the gang situation. By aligning gang-dedicated police with gang-dedicated prosecutors, juvenile officers, and probation/parole officers, the community has a much better chance of reducing gang activity and youth violence.

bulletExpanding gang-dedicated officer training:
Expand the training of officers and command personnel assigned gang enforcement responsibilities to include knowledge of gang activity in a larger geographic setting (due to the need to know about gang member migration, inter-state drug dealing, etc.) and on techniques for preventing, intervening with, and suppressing such behavior. 

Support gang unit officers who wish to attend state-wide, regional, and national conferences and seminars on gangs. The information they collect may pay big dividends in the future. When officers return from advanced training, have them present a local workshop in which they share what they learned with other officers in as many law enforcement agencies as are interested in participating.


Developing a clearly articulated policy regarding gangs:
Develop a clearly articulated written policy which includes prevention, intervention, and suppression techniques for dealing with gang members and other violent youth. Focusing only on suppression nearly guarantees the problem of youth violence will never go away. That's equivalent to focusing on the spill instead of the spigot. Involve other agencies (i.e., social service, mental health) in the provision of the prevention and intervention efforts.


Creating the position of Gang Training Officer (GTO)
Most police departments have a position known as Field Training Officer (FTO). FTOs are experienced officers who train recruits in how to handle situations while on patrol. New recruits spend from one week to a month riding on patrol with at least one FTO before being sent out on their own.

Applying this concept to the gang unit, when a gang unit officer is promoted it is common practice to move the officer to another unit. Why not have the officer become a Gang Training Officer (GTO) for one or two months and spend that time breaking in his or her replacement? The most important objective would be transferring gang-related intelligence from the experienced gang unit officer to the new officer.


Issuing parental notification letters:
Several of the police departments I visited sent letters of notification to parents of youths who came to the attention of the police. The letters suggested the child was associating with known or suspected gang members, seemed to be getting involved in a gang, or was actively involved in gang activity. Parents are cautioned as to the consequences of such behavior and are invited to call the department or a designated community-based youth-serving agency if they had any questions.

bulletRetaining gang unit members after promotion:
Allow experienced officers to remain in units dealing with gang activity and youth violence after they have been promoted, if that is their preference. As it currently stands, most officers who are promoted are moved out of the units in which they were serving prior to promotion. The loss of intelligence, as well as the loss of motivated officers, can diminish law enforcement's gang initiatives.

bulletAdopting useful aspects of the U.S. Department of Justice's Urban Street Gang Enforcement Model:
A 1999 publication of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice, entitled Urban Street Gang Enforcement, provides a detailed analysis of steps which may be taken to curtain gang activity in an active urban environment. Included are: management plans; organizational issues; goals, objectives, and strategies; communication and publicity; training; and evaluation. The importance of a gang database is also discussed along with several other important topics.


Using a multi-agency law enforcement approach:
"Many cities and counties claim success in pooling resources with Federal and State agencies to combat youth and adult gangs and related violence. Multi-agency initiatives generally are of two types. The most common type is Federal, State, and local law enforcement collaboration across jurisdictional boundaries. In other instances, crime control agencies (e.g., police, prosecutors, courts) collaborate in targeting gangs. This site introduces you to several different and successful approaches.
(OJJDP, August, 2000, page)


Arresting the most dangerous and untreatable and incarcerate them:
The solution of last resort is arrest and incarceration. There are gang members in communities throughout the United States who must be removed from open society. They are a danger to everyone, including themselves, and have no interest in changing their ways. 

The best thing police can do with these offenders is to build iron-clad cases against them while providing every due process right in the book. That leaves little room for plea bargaining and, with the cooperation of the prosecutor and judge, makes incarceration a more likely outcome.


Allow retired officers to take retired marked cars home and park them on the street on in their driveways.
I was surprised to find that in one large US city retired officers who wished to have a marked car parked outside their homes were allowed to take retired departmental cars and use them in that fashion. As far as I know, they were not allowed to drive them other than to take them home. The presence of the car in the neighborhood, it is thought, helps deter crime including gang activity.

Community-Based Solutions


Create your own G.R.I.P.E. Program
The East Coast Gang Investigators Assoc
iation has developed a program called Gang Reduction through Intervention, Prevention, and Education - G.R.I.P.E. The Association has been working to educate the communities and those entrusted to work with our youth about gangs. We should all realize that suppression alone would not win the war on gangs. It must be, we believe, a threefold effort to include Education, Prevention and Suppression.


Offering Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.):
The D.A.R.E. program focuses on drug-related issues and has three main goals: provide students with a knowledge base on the effects of drug abuse that go beyond the physical ramifications and extend to emotional, social, and economic aspects of life; build decision-making and problem solving skills and strategies to help students make informed decisions and resist drug use, peer pressure; and provide students with alternatives to drug use.

"D.A.R.E. is a universal program designed to reach the general population, rather than 'at risk' groups, and it is most often implemented in the fifth and sixth grades. Research has shown this to be a time when children are very receptive to anti-drug messages, particularly as they approach the age associated with drug experimentation. The curriculum focuses on knowledge and skill development in seven areas: 

"1) cognitive information, 
2) recognizing pressures, 
3) refusal skills,
4) consequential thinking and risk taking,
5) interpersonal and communication skills, 
6) decision making, 
7) positive alternatives."
(Source: The D.A.R.E. Internet Site, see left margin for curriculum level.)

Although there have been criticisms of the D.A.R.E. program suggesting it is not effective in reducing substance abuse among the children who experience the program there are some research findings from Nebraska, Ohio, and Illinois which indicate the strength of the program.

Nebraska D.A.R.E. evaluation funded by Bureau of Justice Assistance found:

* 92% of the parents believed that D.A.R.E. had reduced their child's chance of using drugs.

* Surveys found parents talked to their children about D.A.R.E.

* 98% of the parents indicated they would recommend D.A.R.E.

* 90% of the parents indicated D.A.R.E. had impacted their child's attitude NOT to use drugs.

Ohio D.A.R.E. evaluation by Ohio State University and Ohio Criminal Justice Services found:

* 90% of teachers and principals felt D.A.R.E. made a positive difference in students' attitudes about drugs.

* 75% of teachers and principals believe D.A.R.E. has delayed students' use of illegal substances.

* 80% of teachers and principals believe D.A.R.E. has made a difference in students' ability to resist peer pressure.

* 72% of D.A.R.E. 11th graders were in a low risk category for substance use as compared to 58% of non-D.A.R.E. students.

* D.A.R.E. 11th graders were more likely to report their parents were involved in school events.

Illinois State Police - University of Illinois at Chicago found:

* Negative attitudes toward drug use, gangs, and violence were attributed to the D.A.R.E. program.

* Students were more aware of media influences promoting alcohol consumption and tobacco use.

* D.A.R.E.students reported stronger peer pressure skills or the ability to say "no."

* Students who participated in D.A.R.E. were LESS likely to use alcohol than students who did not have D.A.R.E.

You may also want to read some positive news about a newly revised D.A.R.E. program entitled "Study Shows New D.A.R.E. Program Helps Youth Decide Against Using Drugs" (please be patient, the site loads slowly). The findings reported are preliminary and may be revised in the future (October 2002).


Offering the Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) program in high-risk neighborhood schools:
Like D.A.R.E., the G.R.E.A.T. program is taught in public schools by specially selected and trained law enforcement officers. You can explore the Web sites of the G.R.E.A.T. in various cities. Unlike D.A.R.E., the G.R.E.A.T. program emphasizes gang-related education. It begins with the premise that children (elementary- and middle-school) are most at risk of becoming involved in gang activity and need, therefore, to learn more about them, the negative consequences of their activities, and how to insulate themselves against gang involvement.

Unfortunately, ... " the results of a 5-year study of the program ... revealed that G.R.E.A.T. has modest positive effects on adolescents' attitudes and delinquency risk factors but no effects on their involvement in gangs and actual delinquent behaviors."
(National Institute of Justice, Summary, Publication, June, 2004).

The best time to turn young people toward a productive life-style is long before they ever start down the road of deadly violence. That means reaching out to young people as early as the third grade to get to them before the gangs do. (Gardner, 1992, p. 84)

The G.R.E.A.T. curriculum varies in length (seldom more than nine one-hour presentations) and content depending upon the grade in which it is taught. In most cases, students are told what a gang is and how to recognize a gang member, what a crime is, the consequences of violating the law, and what victim, victim's rights, and punishment mean.

In addition, students learn about the meaning of culture, diversity, and prejudice, and how to resolve differences with other people without resorting to conflict. An element of the G.R.E.A.T. curriculum also deals with drug education due to the known relationship between drugs and gangs.

The curriculum concludes with lessons on being responsible for one's own behavior and the importance of setting goals and objectives (Source: G.R.E.A.T.)

A recent evaluation of the G.R.E.A.T. program noted that it is now taught "in all 50 states and overseas. More than 1.5 million students have gone through the program. The evaluation involved 6 sites and 3,000 students and was supported by the NIJ [National Institute of Justice] in cooperation with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms [which, with the Phoenix {AZ} Police Department, developed the G.R.E.A.T. program]." (National Institute of Justice Journal, April, 2001, p. 19)

The evaluation study found "important differences in attitudes after 4 years" had passed from initial student exposure to the G.R.E.A.T. program. "Program participants also reported lower levels of gang membership, self-reported delinquency, and victimization, although these differences were not statistically significant." (National Institute of Justice Journal, April, 2001, p. 19)

According to Esbensen and Osgood among the "statistically significant outcome differences between G.R.E.A.T. students and comparison students" were the following. "G.R.E.A.T. students reported lower rates of drug use, lower rates of 'minor' offending, more negative attitudes towards gangs, fewer delinquent friends, more friends involved in pro-social activities, greater commitment to peers promoting pro-social behavior, more commitment to school, higher levels of attachment to both mothers and fathers, more communication with parents about their activities, higher levels of self-esteem, and less likelihood of acting impulsively." (Esbensen and Osgood, 1997)

Field Note: I observed a G.R.E.A.T. officer at work teaching a group of 25 seventh graders in Kansas City. I could not believe the enthusiasm expressed by the students when the officer walked into the room. They ran to him, hugged him, then ran for their seats eager to start class.

When the officer asked a question about a reading assignment the students had been given, nearly every student raised his or her hand in hopes of being called to give the answer. Giving the right answer meant the student could have any two pieces of candy in the box the officer held out.

It was clear that, if nothing else was learned, the relationship the students had developed with the officer was wonderful.

I interviewed another gang unit officer who was a G.R.E.A.T. instructor. I asked him what he thought of the G.R.E.A.T. program. He replied "Of all the kids that have gone through the program, "eighty-five to ninety percent already knew about gangs by the time I get them in the program. They learned about them through today's music, videos and movies."

In another community I asked the G.R.E.A.T. officer about his classes and he said "I send the parents of my G.R.E.A.T. students a letter asking for feedback about the program. Some of the letters I get back are positive, but most parents don't even respond to it. I don't think they care."

I have often been asked if it isn't redundant to have a G.R.E.A.T. program in a school if there's already a D.A.R.E. program, or visa versa. My reply is always the same. "Have you seen any of the children's problems over-solved?" I vote for caution and, if a duplicity of programs helps, let's be duplicitous. Besides, D.A.R.E. programs focus on drugs while the G.R.E.A.T. program focuses on gangs.

Special anti-gang curriculums for children in the early elementary grades are usually taught by representatives of outside agencies. Although evidence suggests that these curricular efforts are successful in changing attitudes of youth about gangs, it is not clear that behavior of youth who are already  gang members is also changed. (Spergel et al., 1994, p. 10)

(Law Enforcement Solutions, Continued)

2002 Michael K. Carlie
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