When I asked the
supervisor of the gang unit why there is a gang problem in town he
asked "You mean right now? It changes all the time."
I began many of my field interviews by asking "Is there a gang
problem in this community?" If the answer was
"yes," as it usually was, I then asked "What's the
problem?" That question elicited a variety of answers.
"Yes, we have a gang problem."
Although, at first, I would have assumed that "Yes" meant the problem was the
fact that there were gangs, I knew from past experience that I couldn't
assume anything. I'm glad I didn't make any assumptions!
Like the responses of many of the people I interviewed, Jose identified
several problems including the harm being done to gang members and their
parents and the perceived leniency of the courts in dealing with
Other "problems" related to gangs which were mentioned by the
interview subjects included:
|Community denial of the gang problem when it's
clear that we have gangs.|
|Denial of a gang problem by our chief of
police, even though we (i.e., probation and parole officers,
school administrators, police
officers) know there's a gang problem in our community.|
|The use of "downward comparisons"
(saying "We don't really have a gang problem here, not like
they've got in L.A.!") which results in a form of denial
and produces no effort to address the gang problems that we DO
comparison is a psychological process in which people feel
better about their own situation when they see someone in a
worse one. (Surette,
1998, p. 82-83)
Note: When I asked the gang unit supervisor if the
city has a gang problem he said "Not really. It's
not like they have in L.A.."
I spoke with the other members of his unit they said
"Our Asian gangs are into
crack sales, the Hispanic gangs run the tar
heroin trade from Mexico, and the Blacks sell crack. The Vietnamese
gangs are doing a lot of bank fraud using counterfeit checks. They also run counterfeit charge card operations."
There isn't a gang problem?
Not compared to L.A. The message is that there's not a "real" gang
problem and the community will believe what the gang unit
supervisor tells them.
|Media sensationalism about gangs in other
communities and in ours and the fear and stick-your-head-in-the-sand mentality that
develops in some people.|
|"People have an image of a 'gang' in
their mind and it's usually the product of the media. And
if the local gang situation doesn't look like that, then they
feel they don't have a gang problem."|
| "In [Dutch] culture, what happens behind a
doors is none of our [the state's] business. And some of the things that are happening
end up a problem for us on the streets." |
|The impact it's having on school
attendance. Either the gang activities keep gang members
out of school or they produce an environment in which non-gang
members are afraid to come to school.|
|Kids are afraid to walk to school or the store
or to other places because they know they have to walk through
gang territory to get there. Some of them are forced
to wear the colors of the gang in their neighborhood just to feel
|The runaway problem. Most of the gang
repeat offenders and their family situations are terrible.|
|Drugs. Gangs create a market for them,
distribute them, sell them, and encourage their use. And
the drugs are ruining kids' lives.|
response to my question as to whether the community has
a gang problem or not, a gang-caseload juvenile
officer said "There's two ways to look at that. First, the community is in denial about having
gangs. That's a problem. They either refuse
to believe there are gangs or they don't know they
exist. The other way to look at it is that there
are gangs - they are here. The problem is that
juveniles in our community are being targeted by gangs
and are being 'used up' by them."
I asked what she meant by "used up" and she
replied "I mean, they get these young kids in the
gang then have them 'do this' and 'do that,' 'run these
drugs over there,' or 'hurt so-and-so.' And
after the kids have done that, well, it's like the gang
members really don't care about those kids. They
just use them."
|Some youth simply aren't taking
responsibility for themselves and our justice system doesn't
make them do that either. It's too easy on them.|
|Youths falling prey to attacks by gang
members, either rivals or their own gang members for failure to
pay debts, messin' with a gang member's woman, and other things.|
|Gangs perpetuate a thought process - especially in the inner-city
population - that fosters disrespect for authority.
It legitimizes criminality and
teaches the wrong values. |
|The harm being done to innocent bystanders
in drive-by shootings - including shooting the bystanders or having bullets pass through
Note: Doug had about seven years of experience working gangs
in the police gang unit. I asked him how things were going in the community.
"The community is scared. They can't go out
at night, their property is being destroyed and they're afraid to report criminal activity or testify as
witnesses. That's what really affects us. Honestly, though, if I was in their position I would do
the same thing. The gangs are purposely and visibly
threatening and they scare witnesses off."
|The impact on the value of homes in gang territories and the desperation that results because people
can't sell them and leave the neighborhood.|
|The loss of businesses in the community due
to the presence of gangs and the threat to customers that they
|The number of pregnancies as a result of the
gang mentality. In some gangs, getting a female pregnant
is proof of one's manhood.|
|Children having children.|
|School failure due to a devaluing of
education among gang members.|
|Not knowing what to do to reduce the
amount of gang activity and not being able to get a handle on this issue.|
|We know what we need to do but there's a
lack of public awareness, funding, motivation, willingness to face the issue,
determination, and a
lack of hope.|
|Gangs are stripping some of our youth of
hope for the future.|
|Gangs are creating career criminals, people
who will spend their lives going in and
out of prisons.|
And the list goes on. It didn't matter if the interview
subject was a concerned citizen on the street, a judge, gang unit officer, or a gang
member - many mentioned the same problems.
"No, I don't think we have a gang
I heard this reply only when interview subjects were either in denial about the presence of gangs in their community or when
they simply did not know they were present. According to police,
probation and parole officers, and others, none of the 23 communities I visited were
gang-free. They may have had gangs that were more or less organized or
more or less active criminally, but they all had gangs.
"I don't know if we have a gang
Interview subjects who offered this response either didn't know about the
existence of gangs in their community or knew about them but didn't want to
talk about them with me or admit they had them. For some, a lack of clarity about what the term
"gang" meant was the motivating force behind the
answer. Some of these subjects thought there were
"kids who are just bein' kids" in town, but they did not identify them as a gang.
An individual's perception of the gang situation in their community will
determine, in large part, their response, if any, to it. And different
people will perceive the problem differently. If effective solutions to a
community's gang situation are to be found, there must be a shared
perception that the gangs do exist and of the root causes for their
formation and attractiveness to some of the local youth.
Additional Resources: You
can visit a number of sites for
news on gangs throughout the country.
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.