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 4:
Creating a Community Task Force on Gangs

Generally speaking, a task force consists of a group of people who have come together for a specific purpose. In most instances, a task force is formed in order to study a specific problem, issue, or concern and take action to resolve it. What we will be focusing on is a task force concerned with gang activity and youth violence in its community.

A community task force on gangs is different from a police task force on gangs. Police task force groups are made up exclusively of law enforcement personnel from a variety of law enforcement agencies and has its primary mission the suppression of gang members (gathering intelligence and making arrests), although some prevention and intervention efforts may be made.

Community task force groups include police in addition to representatives from other justice agencies and people from outside the justice system and has as its primary goal a reduction in gang activity and youth violence using prevention and intervention. While it supports police in the necessary use of suppression, a community task force emphasizes the need for prevention and intervention (usually in that order). Our purpose here is to focus on community task force groups - who serves on them, how they are created, and what they may do.

Click on the topics below or 
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Who Serves on a Community Task Force?


How a Task Force is Created


What a Task Force Does


In Closing

Who Serves on a Community Task Force?

A community task force (hereafter "task force") typically consists of representatives from a variety of local social institutions including, but not limited to,

bulletconcerned parents,
bulletschools (both traditional and alternative),
bulletfaith community leaders,
bulletbusiness leaders (including individual business owners as well as representatives from the local Chamber of Commerce, Kiwanis, Rotary, etc.),
bulletgovernment officials,
bulletmedia (reporters and/or anchors),
bulletmembers of the health care community (particularly mental health),
bulletrepresentatives from area neighborhood associations, and
bulletrepresentatives from the justice system including a juvenile officer, a probation and parole officer, a member of the police gang unit, a prosecutor, and possibly a judge).

There people in your community who are well informed on matters related to gang activity and youth violence. They probably include police, sheriffs, prosecutors, teachers, probation/parole officers, juvenile officers, security personnel, and jail/prison employees, counselors, and academics/researchers, to name a few. If they aren't already working together in a task force group, your community may benefit from creating one.

According to the 1998 National Youth Gang Survey, (2000) "Respondents reporting youth gang problems in their jurisdiction in 1998 were asked whether their agency participated in a formal multi-agency task force or collaborative effort that focused on youth gang problems as a major concern. Table 40 (below) shows that about one-half (49 percent) of all respondents said yes. Two-thirds of jurisdictions reporting involvement in task forces were in large cities (403 of the 612 total)." (National Youth Gang Survey, 2000, site)

Table 40: Jurisdictions Reporting Youth Gang Task Force Collaboration, by Area Type, 1998
(National Youth Gang Survey, 2000, site

Respondents reporting task force involvement in 1998 were also asked about other entities participating in the task force. Table 43 (below) shows that 9 out of 10 respondents reported linkage with another police or sheriff’s department and some other criminal justice agency (i.e.,  probation/parole, state police). 

The next most common participants in task forces were some other government entity (43 percent) and schools (42 percent), followed by community-based organizations or citizen groups (only 19 percent). However, large cities had a much broader range of participating agencies than task forces in other area types. In addition to other law enforcement and criminal justice agencies, large-city task forces were likely to include a private corporation (72 percent), some other government entity (69 percent), private social service agencies (69 percent), schools (64 percent), and a community-based organization or citizen group (61 percent). It is interesting to note that 67 percent of small-city respondents reported that religious institutions participated in local task forces. (National Youth Gang Survey, 2000, site)

Table 43: Jurisdictions Reporting Types of Youth Gang Task Force Participants, 1998
(National Youth Gang Survey, 2000, site)

As you can see from Table 43 (above), few task force groups had representatives from faith institutions, community-based or citizen groups, or the business community. This is unfortunate since all are impacted by the presence of gangs and each has something to offer in the way of prevention and intervention.

How a Task Force is Created

The easiest and most undesirable way to bring about the creation of a task force on gangs may be for a community to experience a serious gang-related crime. But the interest in gang activity and youth violence it raises may be short lived. It is better to take a methodical approach, one which builds a group of people who are committed for the long term. In order to begin, you can find others in the community who either work with gang members or who are significantly impacted by them. Among those who work with them are youth-serving agency personnel (i.e., child abuse center staff, mental health professionals, family violence counselors, teachers and school administrators), juvenile officers (with juvenile gang members), and probation/parole officers (with adult gang members), and police.

Among those who are directly impacted by gang activity are business owners (who suffer loses from theft and vandalism and from declining sales because customers are afraid to come to the store), families with a child who is a gang member, and neighborhood residents whose neighborhoods exhibit the blight of gangs (i.e., drug sales, crack houses, street corner gatherings, general conditions of deterioration).

Using a network approach, you can locate several of those people and invite them to an initial meeting - perhaps a community forum  - which will promote the idea of creating a task force. By "network approach" I mean contacting one person, solicit their participation, then ask him or her for the name of another person who may be interested in attending.  This should produce an initial list of potential task force members.

You may also visit your local United Way office to determine if it is supporting local agencies which should be represented on the task force. Local United Way offices typically fund a variety of community-based service agencies, some of which deal with at-risk youth. To locate the nearest United Way office visit their home page and type your Zip Code in the box on the left side of the page.

What a Task Force Does

Due to the make-up of their membership, a community task force group may use all four approaches to the gang situation in their community - prevention, intervention, and suppression followed by treatment. Rather than provide direct services to at-risk or high-risk youth, the task force may act as a catalyst for making positive things happen in the community.

A task force may support existing prevention and intervention efforts and foster the development of new ones. It may also support the justice system in its use of suppression with the most hard core gang members and other serious youthful offenders. Hopefully, there are resources available for offering treatment while the gang member is in the correctional phase of his or her life (while on probation or while institutionalized).

Among other things, the task force may initiate a public relations campaign to draw attention to the plight of local children or the need to create a new and specific kind of youth-serving agency or institutional/community-based treatment program.

Prevention and intervention efforts may be supported through fund raising projects, recruitment of volunteers to work with prevention and intervention agencies, and by providing another voice in support of what those agencies do. A task force can facilitate the suppressive efforts of police (who are also members of the task force) by providing a setting in which they and other justice practitioners, as well as neighborhood residents, can meet and share their concerns. If there's a serious problem in a neighborhood, the police need to know about it. And if the police know about a problem, it should be shared with the task force. In this way, each helps the other.

Field Note: At a late summer meeting of the community task force one of the members, a neighborhood police officer, said "We had about four drive-bys a week this summer." The other members of the task force were silent as they looked at one another in a near state of shock. None had heard about the shootings.

Writing about gang violence reduction strategies, Burch and Chemers (1977) state that "Communities are implementing a combination of prevention, intervention, and suppression strategies to address the gang problem. An effective gang program must be based on sound theory and work closely with the juvenile justice system." (Burch and Chemers, 1997, page) 

According to Esbensen (2000), "The trend has been to study gangs as a phenomenon distinct from delinquency in general. Despite the recent emphasis on gangs as a separate topic in research literature, there is reason to believe that gangs and gang programs should also be studied within the overall context of juvenile delinquency." (Esbensen, 2000, p.5) Focusing a task force's energy on the more general goal of reducing delinquency, then, contributes to reducing both gang activity and youth violence. By visiting Esbensen's publication, you can learn about prevention and intervention programs. Beginning on page 5 of that publication he reviews several primary prevention programs (school-based), secondary prevention programs (Boys and Girls Clubs of America programs), and tertiary programs, which are basically intervention programs.

Perhaps the most effective step a community task force can take is to bring the community's players together - all the people in position to make decisions about what their agency, office, organization, school, church, government office, etc., will do to help reduce gang activity and youth violence. Sponsoring a community forum is one way to accomplish this goal.

Burch and Chemers (1997) believe the following common elements appear to be associated with a sustained reduction of gang problems:

bulletCommunity leaders must recognize the presence of gangs and seek to understand the nature and extent of the local gang problem through a comprehensive and systematic assessment of the gang problem. [A community forum could begin the process of education community leaders.]

bulletThe combined leadership of the justice system and the community must focus on the mobilization of institutional and community resources to address gang problems. [A community task force or coalition could fulfill this mission.]

bulletPeople in principal roles must develop a consensus on definitions (e.g., gang, gang incident); specific targets of agency and interagency efforts; and interrelated strategies - based on problem assessment, not assumptions. Coordinated strategies should include the following:

Community mobilization (including citizens, youth, community groups, and agencies).

Social and economic opportunities, including special school, training, and job programs. These are especially critical for older gang members who are not in school but may be ready to leave the gang or decrease participation in criminal gang activity for many reasons, including maturation and the need to provide for family.

Social intervention (especially youth outreach and work with street gangs directed toward mainstreaming youth).

Gang suppression (formal and informal social control procedures of the justice systems and community agencies and groups).

bulletCommunity-based agencies and local groups must collaborate with juvenile and criminal justice agencies in surveillance and sharing of information under conditions that protect the community and the civil liberties of youth.

bulletOrganizational change and development (involving the appropriate organization and integration of the above strategies and potential reallocation of resources among involved agencies).

bulletAny approach must be guided by concern not only for safeguarding the community against youth gang activities but for providing support and supervision to present and potential gang members in a way that contributes to their pro-social development. [This is a prevention measure addressing the fact that we can not forget to keep good kids good.]

In Closing

There are many barriers to overcome in the process of addressing a community's gang situation. According to research conducted by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (1999), "The most effective approaches to addressing gang-related problems involve several agencies or groups handling a number of facets of local gang problems and focusing on suppression, intervention, and prevention." (BJA, 1999, page A community task force on gangs and youth violence is one such approach. Another approach is the use of a community-based youth agency - our next topic.


Additional Resources: You can explore what some other communities have been doing to reduce gang activity and youth violence.

The publication Addressing Community Gang Problems: A Model for Problem Solving, presents a model for action which can "assist local communities in addressing gang problems by focusing on a comprehensive strategy for preventing and controlling street-gang drug trafficking and related violent crime with components ranging from prevention to suppression. Police, other law enforcement agencies, and numerous public and private organizations can implement this prototype." (BJA, 1999, page)

Here are some links to community task force groups that deal with the issues of gangs and youth violence:

For links to police task force groups visit their sites in the Resources section of Into the Abyss.

© 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.