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

Chapter 14:
The Police Response to Gangs

Field Note: I sent a letter to the San Francisco police department in hopes of being able to ride with their gang unit. Shortly after sending the letter I received a phone call from one of the gang unit officers. The officer asked "So, what would you like to ride?" "I'm sorry," I replied, "I thought I wrote to the department about riding with the gang unit." "You did," he said. "We just want to know if you want to ride Hispanic, Black, or Asian." That was my first introduction to big-city gang units.

In 2007 the Justice Policy Institute published a report entitled "Gang Wars: The Failure of Enforcement Tactics and the need for Effective Public Safety Strategies." It is the product of a scientific and objective enquiry into law enforcement practices aimed at gangs and concludes that many, if not most, of those efforts have been ineffective. The report identifies alternative approaches which should be of interest to anyone and any neighborhood/community wanting to find more effective ways to reduce gang activity. You can read any of the follow to learn more about what the Justice Policy Institute found:

In April of 2004, Charles M. Katz and Vincent J. Webb conducted a rather remarkable and very useful study of police gang unit responses to gangs. It is entitled Police Response to Gangs: A Multi-Site Study, and was funded by the United States Department of Justice. In an email dated December 31, 2004, Dr. Katz indicated that the book will eventually be published by the Cambridge University Press.

The police gang units Katz and Webb observed were those in Inglewood (CA, population 112,580), Phoenix (AZ, population 1,321,945), Las Vegas (NV, population 478,434), and Albuquerque (NM, population 448,607. The size of those departments' gang units (in 2004) ranged from 4 officers (Inglewood) to 41 officers (Las Vegas) while the number of sworn officers in the entire police organization ranged from 210 in Inglewood to 2,532 in Phoenix (the 10th largest police agency in the United States. (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. 35)

In addition to reading newspaper articles and documentation provided in official reports and interviewing external stakeholders (people in the community who had a vested interest in the gang phenomenon), Katz and Webb interviewed a total of 65 of the 90 gang unit officers available in their research cities and an additional 20 police managers and supervisors. (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. 43)

One of the key differences about Katz's and Webb's study is that the gangs in the cities they studied were predominantly comprised of Mexican Americans and Mexican Nationals, as opposed to the African-American or Asian gang populations found in other cities. Due to the rapidly increasing size and diffusion of Latino peoples throughout the United States, Katz's and Webb's study is both timely and relevant.

Because I believe the findings of Katz's and Webb's research are so important, I will summarize their findings here, although there are many more of their findings reported throughout Into the Abyss. What follows is a brief summary of the highlights of Katz's and Webb's study. It includes the goals and objectives of the study, its five major findings, and a statement on how to improve the effectiveness of police gang units.

Katz and Webb stated the goals and objectives of the study (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. i) as follows:

1. To identify and examine the factors that have led to the creation of specialized police gang units, and to examine how those factors have influenced the units' responses to the gang problems in their communities;

2. To examine alternative ways in which police agencies have organized resources to respond to their local gang problems;

3. To examine the relevant beliefs of gang unit officers, and how their beliefs might have affected the police response to gangs;

4. To identify the activities that gang unit officers have been engaging in, and to clarify conceptually the roles of specialized police gang units within their departments;

5. To assess the goodness of fit of the police response to gangs with the community-oriented policing paradigm.

The study concludes with five major findings, all of them of significance for law enforcement agencies hoping to effectively deal with the gang problems they face. (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. ii)  As will be seen in the remaining pages of this chapter, the problems noted in the major findings above have, to a significant degree, crippled or otherwise hindered law enforcement's efforts to gain a stronghold on the gang phenomenon.

First Finding: Police gang units were an indirect response to an objective problem

Although all cities in our study had gang problems at the time that their respective police departments established gang units, in creating the gang units, the police departments typically were responding to political, public, and media pressure - not directly to the objective reality of the gang problem. (Italics in original.) (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. ii)

When reading research on gangs, one will find the argument that police officials, the media, and city administrators may create an image of gangs for the community that "demonizes minority and other marginalized youth, in an effort to campaign for additional resources." (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. ix)  In the four cities Katz and Webb studied they found no evidence of such manipulation.

Furthermore, we found no evidence suggesting that police had created the gang units to control marginalized populations who they perceived as threatening; rather, we found evidence to the contrary. Much of the data suggested that minority communities played a major role in shaping the nature of the police organization's response to gangs. (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. ix)

In reality, the researchers found that community members were criticizing police for not taking enough action to reduce the gang problems in their respective communities.

Second Finding: There was an absence of control and accountability over the gang unit.

The data showed that few formal mechanisms had been instituted for controlling and managing gang units and their officers, or for holding them accountable. (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. ii)

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 a result, they found gang unit officers were poorly trained on gang-related matters. On-the-job experience was what passed for "training" and, as might be expected, resulted in producing several problems affecting investigations, the handling of intelligence, and their ability to provide any meaningful insights to policy planners and members of the community.

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) As a result, "this casual approach to performance measurement ... contributed to a sense of autonomy and lack of accountability within the gang units." (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. x)

Third Finding: Information was the principal commodity of gang units.

The most important benefits to actors in the gang units' environments were related to the production and dissemination of gang intelligence. (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. ii)

Other than the gang unit officers and other law enforcement stakeholders, "almost no one ... believed that gang unit suppression efforts were effective at reducing the communities' gang problems." (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. xii) In fact, the researchers found that the gang unit officers they studied averaged only one to three gang member contacts for every eight hour shift worked. And most of those contacts did not result in an arrest. Instead, intelligence was gathered - the commodity most valued by internal stakeholders (members of other units, divisions, and bureaus within the police department).

Fourth Finding: Decoupling of gang units from the rest of the police organization was problematic.

The police had structurally and strategically decoupled gang control efforts from the rest of their police organizations. (Katz and Webb, 2004, p  ii)

The researchers found that the decoupling (disconnecting) of the gang unit from the rest of the enforcement agency was the most typical long-term outcome of the creation of a gang unit. As they note, "This resulted in several negative consequences, limiting the capacity and effectiveness of the units." (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. xiii)

Operational activities carried out by the officers tended to be decided upon in accord with the unique workgroup subculture that existed within each gang unit, a subculture that reflected internally shared beliefs about the nature of the local gang problem and the appropriate response to that problem. (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. xiii)

The gang unit's perception of the "nature of the local gang problem and the appropriate response to that problem," however, often did not match the community's perception of the problem and what it would consider the "appropriate response."

Field Note:  In a community of 100,000 with a police department of nearly 300 officers, the only departmentally-assign gang officer (a Sergeant) had never spoken with officers in the department's narcotics unit about the gang situation. "The narcs," he said, "aren't in our offices. They move their offices around town to keep the bad guys off guard." The problem is, they are also decoupled from the department, including the gang officer.

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. This is a near-fatal flaw.

The police gang unit's use of "off-site and secretive locations promoted gang unit and officer autonomy, to the detriment of all. It resulted in the organizational character of the gang unit being shaped by default by the workgroup subculture, which was sometimes at adds with the mission of the larger law enforcement agency, or sometimes even with the law itself. (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. xiv. Italics added for emphasis.)

As Katz and Webb note, the exploits of the Los Angeles Police Department's CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) gang unit resulted from the development of its own subculture within the police department - a subculture that defined practically any means as appropriate to reach the desire end - reducing gang activity. In this case, however, that meant violating the rights of citizens and breaking the law.

"CRASH officers began resisting supervision, flagrantly ignoring policies and procedures that they believed were inhibiting their ability to respond to the gang problem. This subculture eventually gave rise to the Rampart Scandal, in which Rampart CRASH unit officers in Los Angeles were found to be engaging in hard-core criminal activity." (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. 3)

As Katz and Webb note, violations like those committed by the L.A. Police Department's gang units were not unique to that city. Other police in gang units in other cities, including those in Katz's and Webb's study, exhibited equally unprofessional and illegal behavior. (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. 4)

Fifth Finding: Police gang units did not practice community policing.

Traditional local law enforcement finds police in a reactive mode. That is, they wait for a call for service and react by arriving on the alleged crime scene and, when appropriate, making an arrest. The emphasis today in law enforcement circles is to become more proactive - to prevent crimes from occurring. Community-policing is a proactive form of policing (while still including reactive law enforcement). The core features of community-policing include "citizen input, geographic focus (on a crime-ridden neighborhood, for example), emphasis on prevention, partnerships (with community organizations and citizens), formal problem solving" (such as the SARA Model), and greater officer discretion. (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. 467)

Gang units and gang unit officers were not practicing community- or problem-oriented policing. (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. ii) In general, we found that the gang units that we studied rarely sought citizen input, and had rarely formed partnerships with community groups, local businesses, or other local or state agencies." (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. xv)

Given the importance of prevention within the community-oriented style of policing, it was disappointing to find so few gang unit officers participating in prevention activities. Klein found that only about eight percent of gang units are involved in prevention activities. (Klein, 1995) Likewise, Katz and Webb found that the gang unit officers in the four gang units they studied

believed their responsibilities did not include addressing underlying problems related to gang crime." (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. 470) The gang units we studied rarely formed intentional partnerships with community groups, local business, or state and other local agencies. When they did, the partnerships typically were with criminal justice personnel for the purpose of exchanging gang-related intelligence. (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. 472)

One of the major premises of Into the Abyss is that, for police to be effective with gangs, there must be a police-community connection. A partnership. In its absence, the police are working alone and fail to obtain needed information, cooperation, and other resources available to them from most communities.

I have worked with a community-wide gang task force for several years and continue to find information-sharing in the group of great value, as do most of the law enforcement personnel who serve on that task force. What Katz and Webb found, however, is indicative of too many law enforcement agencies in the United States. They state that "None of the gang unit officers in any of the study sites appeared to value information that non-criminal justice agencies might provide, nor did they recognize potential value in sharing their own information and knowledge with non-criminal justice personnel." (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. xv. Italics in the original.) I believe devaluing any source of information as an error - particularly if the sources are agencies with knowledge of gangs.

And failing to share intelligence with non-criminal justice personnel leaves many in the community without any direction or guidance as to what it is the community needs to do to effectively address the gang phenomenon.

None of the gang units Katz and Webb studied participated in prevention or problem-oriented policing. The gang unit officers did not believe those activities were their responsibility. Addressing the problems underlying the gang phenomenon fell out of their purview. Instead, the gang units took a reactive view to policing gangs rather than a proactive one. "We found that the gang units simply did not routinely consider formal problem-solving strategies as a means to address their local gang problems." (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. xvi.)

How to Improve the Effectiveness of Police Gang Units

Interestingly, we found none of the police departments engaging in any form of analysis to better understand their cities' gang problems. Community gang control activities most often were planned and implemented in accord with popular beliefs about problems, rather than being grounded in thoughtful analysis. (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. 473)

Given the problems identified above, Katz and Webb suggest the following steps be taken to improve the effectiveness of police gang units and enhance their legitimacy in the eyes of the communities they serve. (Katz and Webb, 2004, p. xvi)

bulletGang units need to be tightly coupled with the entire law enforcement organization - both physically and operationally - so as to enhance the flow of intelligence.
bulletGang units need more managerial controls and accountability. With better direction in the form of policies, procedures, supervision, and training, gang units will have greater direction and capacity to focus their resources and skills on community gang problems.
bulletGang units should incorporate many of the organizational features and operational strategies found in community policing including, but not limited to, community embeddedness (level of participation with the community), formal problem solving, and geographic accountability.

The remainder of this chapter continues to focus on the police response to gangs. You can click "Next" at the bottom of this page or click on "Introduction" in the box below.


Additional Resources: You can read the entire text of Katz's Establishment of a Police Gang Unit: An Examination of Rational and Institutional Considerations and about the "Target Model" being adopted by various communities (bringing police, probation/parole, and prosecutors together to target the most serious gang members in a community). The OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book provides a great deal of useful information on law enforcement and juvenile crime.

You can learn more about the difference between reactive- and pro-active policing. You can also read more about the law violations committed by another of the Los Angeles Police Department's gang units (the Ramparts Division gang unit) and the consequences for the community.

You can also learn more about formal problem solving as exemplified by the SARA Model.

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.