Tactics of a Gang Unit
Field Note: The head of
a regional federal gang task force told
me about one of his more recent gang-related investigations. "The gang was involved in drug dealing and lived in a
number of apartment buildings owned by a landlord who knew what they were doing
and accommodated them. Following our investigation of the matter, the building
owner and his manager were arrested and convicted along with forty-three gang
"We confiscated all nine buildings and, in the end, the owner received a 20 year prison term.
One of the most satisfying things that happened on this job was closing down the gang operation on
that side of town and taking those apartment
buildings away from the owner.
"The people in the neighborhoods that were affected came out to greet us when the case was
over because they were so thankful that we had successfully gotten rid of the drug dealers and the gang members
who used to hang around and intimidate everyone."
A police gang unit officer told me a
story about a gang called the Twenty Sevens. There were originally 27 Asian boys
who formed the gang so they gave it a name symbolizing the number of original
members. Each member had a pager and all of them shared a secret code on the
pagers for sending messages to one other. Using their pagers, three of the members who attended a
private school called in the rest of their gang. The three gang members wanted the rest of the gang to come to the school so they could assault two white boys there. When the other gang members arrived
they nearly killed both boys.
Local patrol officers investigated and called it a hate crime. They didn't
know a gang was involved. The hate crime investigator was called in and, investigating
the incident further, recognized it as a gang-motivated crime. I asked him "Does it matter whether it was a gang
crime or not?" I
wanted to hear more about what value, if any, there was in treating a crime as
gang-related. He replied "It does and it
doesn't." Among the reasons why he said it does matter were:
| With a gang, there's often an on-going relationship between the
perpetrators and the victim. This aids us in investigating the
| Intelligence is heightened if it is a gang-motivated crime. It means
there may be pictures on file that can be used to identify suspects or their affiliates and girl friends - anyone who could be
questioned during the investigation.|
| Most important, it might provide a motive for the
crime. And if it is gang-related, the motive may be something that happened
recently or a long time ago. Either way, because it's a gang-related
crime we may have access to better intelligence concerning the motive.|
These reasons for knowing whether a crime was gang related or not introduced
me to a variety of tactics used by police gang officers in achieving their
mission. I've placed the tactics into four categories: prevention and
intervention, intelligence, suppression, and combined intelligence/suppression
Click on the topics
continue reading down the page ...
Prevention and Intervention Tactics
While most people I interviewed did not think of police as doing prevention
or intervention work related to gangs, they do. Prevention efforts are
used with individuals who have not yet become involved with a gang. Intervention efforts are used with marginally involved gang youth and with gang
members who want to leave a gang. Among the prevention and intervention
tactics or techniques I observed in use were:
I observed police in public schools as they presented information to
students, teachers, and administrators concerning gangs. One of the
prevention programs I saw implemented by police was the Gang Resistance Education and
Training (G.R.E.A.T.) program. We'll look more closely at it In the Solutions
section of Into the Abyss.
I also observed officers in meetings with concerned citizens and
community-wide task force groups designed to deal with the gang
situation in the local community. The police were typically used
as sources of information concerning the gang situation and, as such,
served an important role as educators of the community.
To the extent that police are willing to participate in public
information programs on television and radio, they can sometimes be
found commenting on local, regional, national, and international gang
Offering Direct Prevention and Intervention
Because I observed a limited number of police agencies my exposure to
direct gang prevention services by them was limited. In a few of
the departments, however, it was apparent that individual officers (some
of them in a gang unit, some not) cared about at-risk youth
and attempted to dissuade them from getting involved in a neighborhood
Some of the officers played games with at-risk youth in local
parks while others spent time at the local Boys and Girls Club playing
basketball or got involved in some other sport. During my visits with
them, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department offered a program called Vital Intervention and
Directional Alternatives (VIDA).
VIDA is specifically designed to deal with
"at-risk" youth and utilize pro-active, innovative
techniques for positive redirection. Overseen by law enforcement
personnel, the program offers treatment, prevention and punitive
components to alter negative behavior. The most typical scenario
would involve referrals from the Juvenile Courts or by parents who
petition the court requesting that their children be admitted to the
It is essential that law enforcement play a major role in the
intervention and overall development of the participants. We are
the first to make contact with "at-risk" youths.
- not the best page, but one of the few still on the web concerning
the VIDA program.)
In most contacts with suspects, police do not make an arrest. The situation is no different with
real or suspected gang members. More
often than not, if there is a conflict developing between gang members,
police will attempt to mediate the situation rather than
wait for it to erupt and be forced into making an arrest. I witnessed this on
several occasions over the past three years.
Mediation involves getting the aggrieved parties to sit
down and communicate with one another through the mediator. There
may or may not be a police officer trained in mediation, but attempts at
mediation are still made. In two of the departments I observed the
mediator was not a law enforcement officer but an adjunct professional
Divert and Refer
The police I observed knew that if gang suspects were arrested and
convicted, some of them would be incarcerated. Many officers believed some gang
suspects needed attention, but confinement was not what they
needed. They viewed confinement as aggravating the situation - producing a more hardened gang member.
When this was the case, officers attempted to divert
suspects from the justice system (juvenile or adult/criminal) and referred
them to a community-based agency
or other source of assistance. This was accomplished by
working with the suspects' family members or guardians or directly with
the youths in question. If a member of the faith community or some
other concerned citizen made known their interest in helping these
youth, the youth was referred to them.
A seasoned gang unit supervisor told me "We realize the
need to divert individuals from becoming involved in the formal
criminal justice process if there is a tactic, or action that
will cause them to change their lives before they become just
another statistic in the system.
practitioners consider this a success. The system is
overburdened and the 'wheels of Justice turn slow.' These
individuals are arrested and back on the streets before we can
get back to the field. They are back on the streets ready to
continue their criminal enterprise. If these individuals go back
to school, work, or move (change their environment), local law enforcement
feels this is a success.
"The cost of putting these
individuals into the system is hard to measure considering the
cost of incarceration, probation or parole supervision,
continued substance abuse, domestic violence, single-parent
homes, and fatherless children living in poverty. However,
telling these thrill-seeking, reckless, impulsive personalities
not to become involved in criminal activity rarely dissuades
them from engaging in these types of activities.
"Dealing with individuals
with this predisposition normally requires a significant or
traumatic event to alter their life's course. I mean a loss of
employment, loss of significant other, or loss of freedom - not
by their choice. This tactic will work only for a short period
of time during an individual's life - maybe the early teens to
"This was the reason we [the
gang unit] stayed on these youths to hopefully intervene before
they got injured, pregnant, or drug addicted. We would call
parents out of their beds to meet us at two or three in the
morning to get their child. Hopefully this would stop a small
number of potential problem makers. This also created contacts
with parents and potential sources of intelligence."
Calling a youth's parents at two or three in the morning to get them
to come pick up their errant youth is a form of diversion and referral used
by some police gang unit officers. In addition, police sometimes
referred youths to informal probation. In these cases a probation officer sought help
for the youths without going through juvenile court.
|Field Note: The supervisor of the gang unit
told me "Every
city's gang problem is a little different and their police
department's need to do somewhat different things - their tactics will vary."
While riding with police gang units I noticed what seemed to
be a preference for gathering intelligence over making arrests. This
impression was further supported by Katz's and Webb's research where they
found that "Officers, both within and outside the gang unit, believed that
if gang unit officers engaged in suppression activity and arrested gang
members, it would be more difficult for them to gather future intelligence."
and Webb, 2004, p. 62) The intelligence
gathered was either turned over to other units for action (resulting in, for
example, the narcotics unit making an arrest instead of the gang unit), used
by the gang unit to further its investigatory function, or both.
Developing Reliable Sources of
The primary purpose of a gang unit is to gather and analyze
intelligence on gangs, conduct investigations, and to suppress gang activity. Gathering the intelligence needed to effectively respond to a community's
gang situation requires reliable sources of intelligence. One of the most significant activities in which gang
unit officers participate is developing and cultivating these sources.
Among the primary sources of intelligence are concerned
citizens, parents and guardians of gang members, gang members and their
associates, girls friends and wives of gang members, delivery people
(i.e., food, postal, delivery services), social agency personnel who work with
gang neighborhood residents, and detention/jail/prison personnel.
Field Note: On
several different occasions police told me "We try to
develop a good relationship with the young girls in the gang
neighborhoods. They're just like their mothers - concerned
about their little brothers and boy friends. If they think
they're getting involved in gang activity, they sometimes talk
to us about it. They can be a good source of
Directed patrol finds police patrolling in specific places at specific times
because, in the past, problems have erupted in those locations at similar times. In
like fashion, gang unit officers typically drive by suspected gang
members' homes, hideouts,
hangouts, and drug houses, to familiarize themselves with those
properties and their surroundings.
The police I observed were constantly learning their way
through the beat neighborhoods - both by car and on foot. Routes of escape had
to be learned as well as where suspects lived, the kinds of cars they drove,
where they usually parked, and so on. Familiarization drives provided a foundation
upon which other tactics were based.
High Visibility Surveillance or Saturation
normal shift a patrol car may drive through a given intersection
every hour or so. Where high visibility surveillance is being conducted that car
may drive through the intersection every 20 minutes, and it will be a marked
patrol car. Police on bikes, foot, or riding horseback may be used. Increasing the visibility of the police is intended to deter potential offenders
from offending - including gang members.
The gang squad leader told me "Zero tolerance is a part of a three pronged
approach we use against gangs. We created a policy which consisted of high
visibility saturation policing of particularly troubled areas, we carry
out continuous intelligence gathering, and enforce a zero tolerance
The squad leader believes the three-pronged approach "is
deterrence. It includes psychological warfare - we wear gang
members down with our zero tolerance and by continuously telling them 'We know what you're up to and we're watching you.'"
This was a policy I observed in many of the gang units I studied.
In a personal letter, a gang unit supervisor shared his comments
regarding high visibility saturation. Here's what he wrote:
This tactic is more significant than it first
appears. I will discuss the premise this is founded upon. Citizens
with information or concerned about gangs were directed to me. I often
arrived at work and found thirty to forty voice mails on my telephone.
I listened to their messages then contacted those with the most
All the messages with potential gang information
were forwarded to our department's Crime Analyst. She sorted through
and summarized their content then provided a report with the most
significant information underlined.
I distributed the reports to the rest of the gang
unit. The officers then starting driving by the locations from which
the calls originally came and wrote descriptions of vehicles in the
vicinity, their license numbers, etc. I contacted the citizens
discretely and provided them with the cellular phone and pager numbers
for my unit's officers. That way the citizens would not get the normal
run around by calling 911.
The citizens became our eyes and ears. We had so
few officers that this was a necessity if we were going to be
effective. When citizens called and got immediate service they were
happy. Since we started showing up at just the right time (when
trouble was brewing), the gang members thought some of their cronies
were snitching on them. This sometimes caused distrust and dissention
- they never really knew who they could trust.
The citizens loved us, however the problem
children did not like the fact that we would show up any time any
place. We did not drive up in front of their homes, lights flashing,
radios turned up, slamming our car doors. Instead, we came out of
When we were alerted that something was going on,
we moved into the area wearing our POLICE vests, jackets, and
insignia. We stopped cars using our red lights, and talked to
interested people in the area. They were possible future information
The troublemakers thought "Holly cow the
cops are all over us - they know what we are doing!" Hopefully
they would move to another area then it would take a few months for
the new neighbors to identify the trouble makers and the process would
start again. (Personal correspondence,
police Lieutenant, department gang unit, November, 2001)
Knock and Search/Talk
In a knock and search/talk,
gang unit officers approach a residence, knock on the door, talk with the
occupant and possibly carry on a rudimentary search of the premises
with the consent of the resident. It sounds simple, but the information
this tactic produces makes it particularly useful for gathering
intelligence as well as defusing potentially explosive situations.
his knock and search/talk technique, a gang unit
supervisor said "We would show up, tell them we just didn't
drive down the street and pick their house at random, which was
true, to a point. Usually we had information that suspected
criminal activity was going on in the house. We would insinuate
that snitches had put us onto these people. Occasionally the
residents would tell us they knew who had informed on them and
they would retaliate by giving information on the suspected
snitch. More intelligence for us!"
This tactic may be used at the homes of suspected gang members as well as non-gang
members. Everyone and anyone who is concerned about gangs, or who the
police would like to talk to, was a target for this tactic.
Law enforcement agencies across the nation are building
databases of gang-related information. Not all jurisdiction have
them or even want them. Some of those who have them don't use them.
A new national gang database was designed, and became
operational on October 1, 1995. The Violent Gang and Terrorist Organization File
(VGTOF) is a component of the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and is
tailored after the NCIC Wanted Persons File records. The system is operated and
managed by the FBI with input from an advisory board.
The database provides identifying information about gangs
and gang members to law enforcement personnel. This information serves to warn
law enforcement personnel of the potential danger posed by violent individuals,
and promotes the exchange of information about gangs and their members to
facilitate criminal investigations. This pointer system acts as an early warning
system in apprising local law enforcement agencies of an emerging gang problem.
Databases are costly to develop and maintain and their content is constantly changing
as gang members move, die, get locked up, buy new cars, divorce, remarry, change
names, and so
on. When used, they can be an effective way of locating suspected
gangsters for whom warrants have been issued and for providing law
enforcement agencies with information about migrating gang members.
Found in nearly
every aspect of policing, confidential informants (CIs) are an important element
in the array of
tactics employed by police gang units as well as police in all other units.
Older gang members who are tired of the gang
scene and want to see it come to an end sometimes turn into CIs. They are particularly useful
when it comes to impending acts of violence - which they would prefer to see
avoided. There are also young gang members who get caught breaking the law whose
behavior goes unreported by gang unit officers in exchange for needed information.
The tactics we've discussed so far, and those to follow, are sometimes
used in concert with other tactics. In addition, other law enforcement agencies may be
engaged to employ them.
A small multi-agency task force successfully
dismantled New York City's Puerto Rican Black Park Gang, so named
because it shot out lights surrounding its base of operations in a
park to avoid police detection. It was a very violent drug gang
- believed to be responsible for 15 murders - that trafficked in drugs
and used the proceeds to buy legitimate businesses through which it
laundered drug profits.
The investigation was led by the homicide
investigation unit of the New York County (Manhattan) District
Attorney's Office and joined by the New York City Police Department,
other New York agencies, and several Federal agencies, including the
FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), the DEA (Drug Enforcement
Administration), and ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms).
Tactics used included
intensive study and initial surveillance, infiltration of the gang by
undercover officers, cultivation and use of confidential informants,
electronic surveillance, cooperation with probation and parole
officers, and asset forfeiture. (Bureau
of Justice Statistics,
2000, color and italics added for emphasis)
Nearly all specialized groups in a society develop a language of
their own - certain phrases, sayings, or terms that are peculiar to each
group. A specialized language is also referred to as argot. Lawyers have their
"party of the third part"), students have an argot (i.e.,
"carrying a heavy load this semester"), and gang members have
Police use deciphering as a means of determining what gang members are
communicating. Some of the ways in which
gang members communicate with each other are more easily deciphered than
Gangs, like any other criminal enterprise, or any
organization for that matter, need
to communicate internally in order to maintain control.
The daily activities of a street gang generate a constant
stream of information including orders from gang leaders, warnings,
tips, threats, gang propaganda and street gossip.
As gangs grow in size both numerically and geographically, the
need for effective communication becomes both more important and
difficult. Add to this
the complications caused when senior gang members are incarcerated and
the need for secret communication becomes more apparent.
Removed from the Internet as of 17 October 2009)
Graffiti, tattoos, newsletters, Web pages, and colors are the more visible and well known
means of communication used by gang members to communicate with each
other. Ciphers, codes, and concealment are
the less detectable methods. As Olson (2001)
Ciphers involve the
replacement of true letters or numbers with different characters.
Ciphers have been common since ancient times and vary in degree
of complexity and sophistication. An example of a simple cipher would be to shift the alphabet
one position to the right so that a true A
would be replaced with B, B
with C and so forth.
In this manner the name "FRANK" would be encrypted as
Unlike ciphers, codes
may represent words, phrases or ideas instead of individual
letters. Codes can be spoken, written or, in the case of pagers,
digital. Gang codes, especially those that represent the names
of individual gang members, are common in gang graffiti. Code
words are often nothing more than street slang but may also include
code words specifically created with secrecy in mind.
Foreign languages are common sources of gang code
words. Pager codes typically involve the use of numeric sequences
to communicate specific messages. For example, a gang member may
send a page that reads "876," the gang member's identity
code, followed by "999," the code for "I need
more drugs to distribute."
Concealment involves hiding the message itself as
a form of secrecy. Concealment methods are commonly used by
prison gangs to communicate both within and outside the prison walls. Most concealment methods involve hiding a message within the body of a
larger text. For example, a concealed message could be recovered
by reading every seventh word of an innocent looking letter. (Olson,
Removed from the Internet as of 17 October 2009)
The tactic, then, becomes learning the argot of gangs. This is not an
easy task as the argot may
differ from one gang to another and from one community to another. It's
worth learning, however, because knowing what's being communicated provides officers with
intelligence on who's in the neighborhood, who's angry at
who, where drug deals are occurring, what's being planned, and more.
Field Interview Reports
A field interview report is completed during and after a discussion
with an individual in the "field" (i.e., on the street, in a building).
Among other things, the report asks for the name, address, phone number, and
place of employment of the individual. It also includes the time and place
at which the report was taken and a description of the suspect (height,
weight, clothing, scars, tattoos, and other identifiers. These reports
are entered into the police department's databank and used
Note: Frank is a gang unit officer. When
I joined him tonight he said "The heat is on about the
current gang situation. We've had
three drive by shootings over the last ten days. The third one took
place earlier today." I asked
him where the "heat" was coming
from. "From the top down," he said. "The City Manager called the
City Council and someone in the Council called the Chief. The Chief
called the Major, the Major called our Lieutenant, and the Lieutenant
called our Sergeant. So, the heat is on."
I asked Frank what his objective was tonight, to
which he immediately replied "To throw some people in jail!"
As we rode around City Park we saw three patrol cars, all
with their red and blue lights flashing. Frank parked the car and
we walked to the scene. Four well-dressed African-American youths were
standing by a car.
The patrol officers pulled them over for failing to have a working stop light at
the rear of their car.
The officers filled out field
interview reports on each suspect then released them. No drugs.
No guns. No graffiti or tattoos. No belligerence. Just four more
African-American youths pulled over by the police for a minor offense and now they are
I asked the gang unit officer I
was with why these people were handled this way. "Basically, in this neighborhood, every
car that's in violation is pulled over," he replied. "We want information on
everyone here and want to make the impression that we are here and
enforcing the law. It's all about the 'no tolerance'
approach to dealing with crime and gangs in the neighborhood."
If a corner liquor store is burglarized, police may query the Field
Interview Report databank to find the names and addresses of individuals
who are known to hang around that corner. They may have been in the
vicinity during the burglary and possess valuable information. Or they
may be a suspect.
Developing a Picture Album
Nearly every gang unit I visited had a picture album or a wall or
website of pictures displaying the faces of local gang members both
and suspected. In some cases the pictures were categorized by gang. The
most organized presentations included a brief biography of each gang
member along with their monikers, names of known associates, gang names,
pictures of tattoos and other identifiers, phone numbers, address, the make
and model of their car, and more.
Note: The gang
unit officers I was riding with stopped two young men in
a downtown alley. One of the officers began to question the men
while the other officer reached into the trunk of the patrol car
for a Polaroid camera. Pictures
were taken of each suspect. One of the men asked "Can we
have a picture of both of us?" "Sure,"
replied the officer. As he took the picture he told the men
"Hey, come on, throw some signs or something, make it
good!" They did.
The officer then pocketed
the picture, sneered at the two men and told me "Now we
have a picture to use in court in case the judge asks us how we
know either one of the them is in a gang with the other!"
The pictures are used to familiarize officers with what suspects look
like should a warrant for their arrest be issued. They are also used to jog memories for
specifics when certain gang members' names are mentioned. They also make
for interesting wallpaper.
Involvement with Other Community Agencies
maintaining contact with community members in non-police agencies, gang unit
officers continue to gather intelligence and have an
opportunity to share what they know. The contacts may be informal or formalized,
as they are in a community-wide task force on gangs.
I observed gang unit officers who were involved with school personnel, juvenile/probation/parole
officers, members of local faith institutions and business organizations, and a multitude of community-based
service agencies ranging from family violence and child abuse centers to Boys
and Girls Club. People in each of these agencies have something of value to
offer gang unit officers. The reverse is also
true. Representatives from the schools, faith institutions, and the business
community benefit from hearing about their local gang situation and may, in return, be able to do something to help reduce
Community-based agencies may also be able to help
prevent children from becoming involved in gangs if they know what's going on -
and the gang unit members can help them learn about that. These are
the kinds of things that happen when a community task force on gangs and youth violence is created and
is working effectively.
A gang unit officer told me "Graffiti defines turf for the
gang and is a warning to others. It also creates fear in
neighborhoods. This is the reason we respond aggressively to
remove, or abate the graffiti. It should not be taken lightly by
I spent many
hours over the past three years observing gang unit officers as they read and
interpreted gang graffiti. Sometimes the effort was fruitless, other
times it offered useful intelligence. Knowing which gangs are operative at any given
time and being able to read this
"newspaper for gang members" aids police gang unit
Sometimes referred to as suppression, these enforcement activities include
detaining (holding without arrest) or arresting suspects. Among the
tactics used are:
Consent to Search
I accompanied gang unit officers as they approached suspected gang
members' residences and asked for permission to enter and look around. It
didn't matter whether the person answering the door was a parent, guardian of
the gang member, or a gang member him- or herself ... most
allowed the officer to enter and search.
One of the benefits of the consent to search tactic is that
police are liberated from legal constraints that would normally be imposed
if there were no consent. If consent was required, they would have to show probable
cause - and that can sometimes be difficult.
The consent to search has become a very effective
and important part of legal search and seizures. This investigative
tool is a boon to the criminal justice system from the higher courts
in that it returns limited power for conducting warrantless searches
to patrol officers.
It is more of a gift when one realizes that
suspects often grant permission to conduct a search regardless that
they are actually concealing culpable evidence. Unlike other aspects
of search and seizure, the consent to search is not littered with
technicalities that protect criminals. (Fagan,
Consent to search visits produce intelligence
about gang members' activities and associates (often found in photographs) and
sometimes result in arrests when contraband (i.e., stolen goods, illegal drugs, paraphernalia)
is found. This tactic is also used with suspects'
It was about two o'clock in the
morning and I was riding through a large mid-west city's inner-city area in an
unmarked police gang unit car. There were two gang unit members in the
front seat, I was sitting in the back seat alone. The officers
stopped the car and stared at a group of three African-American males who were
leaning against a car while smoking some marijuana.
As we approached, the one with the marijuana threw it under the car. The officers got out, told the suspects to "Just stand
there," and looked for and found the marijuana. The suspect who
had thrown it down was handcuffed and placed in the back seat with
me. For the next 15 minutes we drove around the neighborhood as the police and I
questioned this 23 year old suspect. He was not affiliated with a gang, had a
job, and was supporting the mother of his child while living with his
The officers gathered all the intelligence they were going to get and
decided not to arrest him. Instead, they said "That's it. We'll
drop you off." "Please don't drop me off in front of my
grandparent's home," he said. "I don't want them to know you picked me
up." "OK," said the officer, and he proceeded to not
only drop the man off in front of his grandparents' home, he honked before he did
This subtle form of intimidation was intended to humiliate and
embarrass the man and to establish that the cops were what? Tough? Not
to be reckoned with? I was somewhat mystified and received no
intelligible answer when I asked why they did what they did. In fact, it struck
me that they alienated someone who could have been of some use to them
at a later date.
A gang unit supervisor suggested that "The underlying
reason for this activity is not totally humiliation. The reason
this is done is to ruin the street reputation of the individual
in his neighborhood. If they are seen riding around in a police
car, the 'Thugs' are going to suspect he is talking to
the police. Why else would be riding with us? He may
erroneously be labeled a 'snitch' or not be able to
sell or purchase controlled substances until he reaffirms his
loyalty to the 'hood.' A name for this tactic could be
Regardless, in one community after another, police harassed, embarrassed,
and humiliated gang members without seeming to give what they were doing
a second thought. In time, as I was told, it was being done to
"prove we (the officers) are in control" and "to get
their (gang members') respect." I think it also creates a great
deal of anger towards police.
Regardless of whether the
suspected gang member we pulled over or stopped had allegedly committed a
violation of the law or not, some gang unit officers cuffed them before
doing anything else. As one of them told me, "You
have to get their respect. If you don't, the next officer they confront
will pay for it."
Once again, as it appeared to me, the tactic alienated and angered
suspects as they were rendered helpless without probable cause. It
seemed an abuse of power, although some police insisted it made their
interaction with gang members safer. That's probably true, in the short
This tactic involves
stopping vehicles and running the occupants' drivers license numbers through the
National Crime Information Center (NCIC) in Washington, D.C., or through some
other central database containing information on criminal offenders. The pretext for stopping the
vehicle may be a broken tail light or some
other minor infraction. Having been found in violation of some ordinance
or law, police now have probable
cause to hold, question, and search the suspect and certain parts of
his or her vehicle.
The purpose of the zero tolerance tactic is to obtain information and
make the point that the police are in the area and actively pursuing
"the bad guys." In addition, police will attempt to collect whatever other useful
information they can by questioning the suspects. It's like "panning
for gold," as one interview subject put it.
I was interviewing a Lieutenant who had directed the city's gang
unit for nearly a decade. The interview took place in a
self-serve restaurant and the tray for our food was still
sitting on our table. It had a napkin in it which was
shaped into a small ball.
"It's like panning for
gold," he said. He picked up the tray and began
swirling it around as though he were panning for gold. The
napkin rolled around on the tray.
Pretending to pick small
pieces of something out of the tray and throwing them out he
said "It's like this. We go in, chase a few, catch
some and, if they're little ones, we move on. The point is
to keep panning until we find the big one."
He picked up
the balled napkin and continued "The one with the gun, or
the drugs, or with the information we're looking for. We
know where the hot spots are - where they party or meet, where
certain gangsters live or stay. We target those areas and
Not all police like to use zero tolerance in their dealings with gang
members. As with each tactic, there is a potential for the tactic to
|Field Note: The gang unit supervisor said
"If we practiced zero tolerance, it would create a
'siege mentality' among the gang members. Individually they would be pissed and it would give members from different gangs something in common to complain
about. It would have the potential of creating solidarity among different gangs and may have greater potential for problems than for any meaningful
and long-lasting solutions."
Since most people violate one law or another, a zero tolerance policy
has the potential of pulling everyone into the purview of the police and does so
legally. This gives the police a powerful tool in gathering intelligence
about gang members and may produce an arrest of someone who had an outstanding
Another gang unit officer told me "We can't do zero tolerance because we are an intelligence unit. It
would take time away from what we need to do. And if we jack the gang members around we wouldn't have as good a line of communication with them as we do now.
They wouldn't help us get the kind of intel we really want.
We want the large deals, lots of guns, drugs and cash.
When we do move
on someone or on a gang, we do it well. We get convictions. And
that's a result of the intel work we do, and getting
intel from gang members is part of that. That's
why we don't have a zero tolerance policy. Besides, if we tried a zero tolerance approach, the courts
back us up. This is a very tolerant city. The courts are very lenient."
In addition to determining if any of the occupants have warrants out for their
arrest, gang unit officers learn whether the car the suspect is driving is
the car associated with the drivers license, and who's riding around or associating
with who. A visual search of the car may take place and, if
the officer feels like it, he may ask for the driver's consent to search the entire
One of the Caucasian gang members I interviewed, a man who has since turned his
life around and is living a legitimate existence, told me "A police policy
of zero tolerance is good and bad. If they hadn't used zero
tolerance on me I'd probably either be in prison or dead by now. Some people - like
me - need to be arrested to have a chance to change."
Street- or Gang Sweeps
With sufficient intelligence about gang members in a given neighborhood
or on a specific street, officers may sweep into the area and make
several arrests at the same time. Police know that "Long-term
proactive investigations of entire gangs are more effective than
short-term investigations of individual gang members." (Jackson
and McBride, 1985, p. 28) Long-term proactive investigations
result in more arrests and increase the likelihood of conviction as a
result of better investigations with more evidence and witness
According to Wilson (2000)
The most notorious gang sweep, Operation Hammer,
was an LAPD CRASH operation launched in South Central Los Angeles in
1988. One thousand police officers swept through the area on a Friday
night and again on Saturday, arresting likely gang members for a wide
variety of offenses, including already-existing warrants, new traffic
citations, curfew violations, gang-related behaviors, and observed
All of those arrested (1,453 persons) were taken
to a mobile booking operation adjacent to Memorial Coliseum. Most of
the arrested youth were released without charges. Slightly more than
half were gang members. There were only 60 felony arrests, and charges
were filed in only 32 instances. "This remarkably inefficient
process was repeated many times, although with smaller forces—more
typically one hundred or two hundred officers.' (Howell,
A practice somewhat akin to a sweep is called "jamming"
whereby gang unit officers identify and stop gang members on the street
(in their cars, on their motorcycles, etc.) in hopes of finding them in
possession of drugs, weapons, contraband, or someone for whom there is
an outstanding warrant. (Katz
and Webb, 2004, p. 103)
A law enforcement "sting" is typically a planned event wherein law
enforcement authorities entice suspects to attend or otherwise
participate in an activity at which, unbeknownst to the suspects', the
police will issue warrants or make arrests. This may be used with
suspected or known gang members and other types of offenders.
Using this tactic police apply pressure on gangs. They target areas
of the community (usually particular neighborhoods, parks, or gang
hangouts) and conduct continuing surveillance,
saturation policing, and sweeps.
Cutting off the Head of the Serpent
tactic of pursuing and arresting the leader, more dominant, or core members of a gang
is referred to as "cutting off the head of the serpent." In some
instances this produces a reduction in gang activity and may even foretell the
end of the gang. It is estimated that only 10% or less of the known gang
population in the United States is made up of core
members. Core members (usually the more violent members of the gang) are the primary targets of police gang
units especially where gang activity has escalated to dangerous levels.
Combined Intelligence and
This tactic may be exemplified by a
police car stopping in front of a group of suspected gang
members or associates and finds the police in a staring match with them. The purpose of
this tactic is to instill fear and keep suspected gang members off
A veteran gang unit commander told me "When we pull up and
look them over, the kids who aren't doing anything wrong just
wonder 'What are you doing here?' The one that's standing
in the group and has a bag of dope in his pocket is thinking
'Oh, crap! I got to get out of here!' and he runs. Maybe he tosses the dope.
We get him."
When I asked a veteran gang unit
commander what he'd call this tactic he said "That's
a sort of psychological warfare." Among other things, police use this tactic in hopes of learning who's in the neighborhood, who's
associating with who, who's wearing what, and driving which
car. "The purpose for doing this," I was told, "is to
gather intelligence." I was also told "We do this to intimidate
suspects and let them know they're being watched and that the police are in the
neighborhood. That's the primary reason for doing it."
|Field Note: We paid a visit to one of the town's high school's today.
directly across from a middle school and both schools are known to be the most ethnically and racially mixed in the city.
Three Asian groups are represented in the student body (Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese) as are
several of the
We arrived just before school let out and within minutes
members of the police gang unit were asking youths to get out of their cars,
took their pictures, frisked them, and tried to determine if they were up to no good.
No guns, drugs, or other contraband were found
youths nor in their cars. A total of three people were arrested on outstanding warrants - all of them for traffic violations that had not been taken care of in court in the
required amount of time.
The three arrests took a total of 2 hours and 5 minutes and tied up seven officers in the gang squad, five officers from the SWAT team and several patrol officers.
Two sergeants were in the crowd.
In reference to the pulling over of the cars and
the gang unit supervisor told me "This whole thing is just to let them know that
we're still here - that we might pop up anywhere. You know, it's the start of a new school
Some gang unit officers attempt to instill paranoia in gang members'
hopes of turning gang members against one another. A gang
supervisor told me "Sometimes I get information about gang activity
from local residents. I may use that information and, if it leads
to arresting a gang member, he'll say 'How'd you know about that? Who's been talkin' to you?' Then I tell him 'I have
snitches. You know
that. Do you really know your friends?' Then he starts
getting paranoid and starts wondering which one of his own are talking
to the police. It works. We keep them off balance like
that." That's a form of psychological warfare.
|Field Note: A
gang unit member said "Sometimes I get dropped off in an
alley, behind some gangster's house or where there's some gang
activity taking place. The other officers drive up in
front of the house, maybe slam on the brakes and make a little
noise. Then they throw the car
door open, I run from behind the house and jump into the car and
we take off. Scares the hell out of 'em! They get
paranoid thinking that cops are hiding everywhere. 'Hey,
look up there. Inside that street light! I see a
camera. They're watchin' us from everywhere!'"
Working Cooperatively with Other Units in the Police
Although one might take inner-department
cooperation for granted, I learned many years ago that would be a
mistake. Inner-departmental jealousies and misunderstandings are rampant
in American law enforcement as they are in many other bureaucracies. With limited resources and badly
deteriorating communication, cooperation between gang units and the rest of
their departments was an exception rather than the rule in the departments I
Where cooperation existed I found patrol officers asking questions of their
suspects which they could only have learned to ask if the patrol officers had
spoken with the gang unit officers. Gang-related cases that fell into
the hands of the patrol- or narcotics units usually
found their way to
the gang unit in departments where cooperation between the units was found. Where there
was a lack of cooperation, the patrol- or narcotics unit handled the case
without informing the gang unit. Little, if any,
information was exchanged.
Note: The sergeant of the gang unit told me
"The newest information
on gang members is coming to my office from the Assaults Unit in
another part of the department. As they investigate assault cases they
sometimes find the suspect or victim to have gang-related tattoos, or
paraphernalia typical of gang members, or they find graffiti at the
scene of a crime. This information is passed on to my unit.
"There are several reasons why assaults may
sometimes be associated with gang activity. Gang members are involved in assaults as a consequence of drug
deals gone bad. Assaults are
also associated with arguments
between gang members over girls or women or they are related to
invasions of turf or territory." The sergeant suggested
"They sometimes have to do with racial hatred."
Working with officers in other units in a police department is enhanced when the gang
unit is involved in the academy training through which all new recruits must
pass. It is even more effective in departments which require seasoned
officers to take on-going training in the academy throughout their career in the
|Field Note: Dale,
a four-year veteran of the gang squad, said he would like to get involved
in the police training academy so new recruits would learn about
gangs and how to respond to them and to their members. He told me about a
police officer who approached a Hispanic gang member.
common for the members of [this] gang to wear a red rosary around
their neck with a red cross dangling from it. Our officer approached
him, stuck his finger out and flipped the cross saying 'So you're a [member of that gang], huh?'" Dale was stunned.
only did the officer show disrespect for the gang member, he destroyed
our ability to gain further intelligence and, worse, he gave away the fact
that we knew that youths wearing red rosaries
and red crosses were gang members! Now none of them wear the
rosary or red cross! I'd like to do something to prevent such things
from happening in the future."
Networking with Other Law Enforcement
In many communities the city police department's gang unit meets with members
of other area law enforcement agencies. County sheriffs, state police, and
federal law enforcement agents are typically a part of this specialized task
force. In the worst circumstances, some of the representatives fail to come
to meetings or arrests become a matter of competition rather than
cooperation. In the best of circumstances, they share intelligence and
cooperate in sharing intelligence and making arrests.
Explaining how the representative from the FBI dealt with gangs, the
director of one of its gang investigation units said "Like with the Chicago
Boys (a gang which had migrated from Chicago to his community), we worked
with other area police and sheriffs in building the case against them. The
FBI Special Agents in Chicago made the arrests there while we arrested other suspects here. What we bring to the team is
advantage of being able to operate anywhere in the country, and that helps when
dealing with gangs and gang members who are mobile."
He also said "We sometimes create our own task force groups, on an ad hoc
basis, to deal with special situations when they arise. We have limited
manpower, so the task force approach is an especially good way to utilize our
agents and enhance their impact. We are dedicated to working with
local law enforcement, and that increases our effectiveness - everyone's
police gang units employ the talents of people who are not employees of the
police agency. Included are Special Agents from the Federal Bureau of
Investigation, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco,
and Firearms, and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Other agencies may be represented or, as in England and the Netherlands,
professional researchers and social scientists may be affiliated with the gang unit.
I visited with several of these gang units and was told by one commander that, "Since there's a
tie between drugs and guns and between gangs and drugs, we needed an ATF (Bureau
of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) agent
to track down illegally possessed guns, and things like that. And, when a
case can be made a Federal case, he can facilitate moving it to the United
States Attorney General's office and on."
Other tactics for dealing with gang members include:
||knowing that a little discretion (letting
someone off) on minor
offenses can go a long way in building trust and,
in the long run, obtaining intelligence. |
||never speaking with the public or the press without the approval of
one's supervisor. Controlling the flow of information is important.|
||getting gang members to brag about their
activities and the activities of other gang members as well as
rivals. If this can be captured on videotape, all the
better. It all adds to the intelligence the gang unit officer
is able to acquire.|
||gaining an understanding of the culture of the
gang members and their slang. This aids in understanding their
motivations and in communicating with them.|
||whenever possible, looking through suspected or
known gang members' wallets, purses, vehicles, residences, notebooks
and other property. Taking photographs of gang members (especially
in groups), observing their tattoos,
jewelry, and the clothing they are wearing, the words they use,
learning their monikers, check their surroundings, and generally
familiarizing oneself with each suspect adds significantly to the
officer's stockpile of intelligence.|
||remembering that "respect" is very
important to gang members. Police who recognize this are
likely to reduce confrontations with gang members and obtain better
intelligence from them. Gang members are more willing to talk
with officers who show respect than with those who are disrespectful.|
It is in
the best interests of the patrol officer - and everybody in
the community - for him or her to relate as positively as
possible with street gangs, without compromising the dignity
and integrity of the badge one wears.
and McBride, 2000, p. 107)
showing respect to the family and friends of
gang members increases the amount of intelligence which may be
gathered from them concerning the gang member in question. Females, if shown respect, are more likely to reveal information
about gang members than are the males in the family.
making positive contact with gangsters where no
legal action need be taken. Examples include stopping
them just to talk and ask how they are doing, what's going on, etc. Whenever possible, do not develop an antagonistic,
"we-them" relationship with gangsters. It will
create a barrier to gathering intelligence.
not using the word "intelligence" when
speaking with gang members, their friends, or relatives. "Information" is less loaded and
a more civilianized term
which may be used in its place.
recognizing that the officers who work in
detention or the jail are in a good position for obtaining
information from incarcerated gang members. They may be included in
gang-related training offered by the department or other area
agencies so they can discern when important information is
coming their way, how to disseminate it properly, and how they should present themselves with
gangsters who are in confinement.
being aware of community-based programs which offer prevention and/or intervention services so
certain at-risk youth
and less-committed gang members may be diverted from the justice
system (when appropriate) and referred for help. Keeping a list
of contacts and phone numbers which may be shared with those youths
and their families is a related tactic.
All the tactics discussed above are ones I saw in
operation. I'm sure there are others. For example, while I never saw or
interviewed an undercover gang member, I know they exist and have been
Before leaving this topic I should add that beyond suppression
is treatment. That is, once an offender (a gang member for our purposes) is
arrested and convicted, what good is it all if the offender is eventually
returned to society without treatment? Later in Into the Abyss you'll
find information on what can be done for or with gang members who want to change
their ways while they are incarcerated (if you want to read that, go to the Site
Map: Chapter 25, Part 3, Topic 6).
As police work with gangs and their members they develop a wide
range of perceptions about them. That's our next topic of discussion.
Additional Resources: You
can learn more about the
Intervention and Directional Alternatives (VIDA) program begun in Los
the site of the Boys and Girls Club of America,
San Francisco, East
Valley (Arizona), Whittier
(CA), Petaluma (CA) or the Boys
and Girls Club of Canada.
You can read more about The
Violent Gang and Terrorist Organizations File and the National
Crime Information Center (NCIC). The Mid-States Organized Crime Information
Center (MOCIC) is one of several regional
information/intelligence centers, several of which have databases on
gangs. GangNet provides tracking information on gang-related activities, gang
members, associates and criminal organizations, to name just a few.
You can read story about Ohio's
database and the legislative act that created the
Statewide Organized Gang Database Act. The United States Bureau of
Justice Assistance sponsored a series of studies which identified the most
promising strategies for dealing with urban street gangs. It focuses
exclusively on enforcement
and prosecution strategies. The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing
provides a nice overview of the
SARA Model - Scanning,
Analysis, Response, Assessment.
While not about gangs, the Charleston Gazette has an
informative three-part series on "Confidential
Informants in the Local Drug War." Some of the problems associated with
using confidential informants are discussed and are applicable to using
confidential gang informants.
Robert Walker has an interesting list of words/expressions
used by gang members as part of their argot.
Street Gang Enforcement, published by the U.S. Department of Justice,
provides some insights on how gang informants may be used within the context of
information or intelligence gathering. You can also read about the requirements for developing and
using confidential informants as outlined in the Los
Angeles Police Department's policies (scroll down to item "V.
For examples of community task force groups dealing with
gangs and youth violence you can visit the
Task Force on Gangs and Youth Violence, the Aurora
(CO) Gang Task Force, and The Mayor's
(Houston, TX) Gang Task Force (a "best practices" program).
If you're curious about how to interpret graffiti, take a
look at Steve Nawojczyk's
site or visit StreetGangs' site and click on the Crip,
Blood, or Hispanic
graffiti you'd like to have interpreted.
Examples of interagency law enforcement task forces dealing
with gangs include the
(Indianapolis, IN) Gang Safe Street Task Force, the
County (WI) Narcotics and Gang Task Force, and the
Haven (CT) Gang Task Force, to mention only a few.
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.