Image courtesy of Richard Valdemar.
As obvious as it might seem, we in law enforcement tend to forget that one of the primary dangers in dealing with criminal gangs is the fact that we are dealing with multiple suspects. In defense of this, not only are we forced to divide our attention among the multiple gang members, but in addition each individual's aggressive criminal tendencies are heightened when they are encountered in their predatory packs.
I am no psychologist or psychiatrist, but the subject that I write about now is derived from my personal experiences growing up in a gang-infested Los Angeles neighborhood, coupled with 33-plus years as a law enforcement officer dealing with some of the most dangerous individuals alone and in their predatory gangs.
In thinking tactically about encountering gangs in the field, it is helpful to use Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's analogy. Most people are like sheep; the people who prey on the flock (gang members) are like wolves, and we in law enforcement who are tasked to protect and serve the sheep are like sheep dogs.
Wolves, lions, hyena and coyotes are not the only animals in nature to rely on numbers to overcome their victims. Even smaller creatures such as rats, bees and ants can swarm and attack anything that might threaten them. They do this even if the creature is much larger, and even though this attack will certainly mean that some of the pack will surely die. Often the swarming attack begins with warning calls and angry noises that seem to further enrage the group. The pack surrounds the victim and cuts off any possibility of escape.
Think about this example in nature with each encounter you have with multiple suspects and gang members in the field. Do not underestimate them because they are young or small, scrawny wolves. Maybe you have even encountered and dealt with several of them individually in the past. Maybe you know their names and their families. Don't assume that they will hesitate to attack you because you are bigger, better armed and capable of utilizing deadly force. The bear's size and power will not stop a swarm of bees from attacking him, even though many will die in the attack. Do not let them surround you; "watch your six" and look for an emergency exit route.
Don't let pride get the best of you; a little humility will serve you well. Even the best sheep dog can be outflanked and overrun. If you can identify two, three or four of the suspects, think, "Those are the ones I see. How many more are hiding?" When you encounter multiple suspects, start thinking about requesting back-up.
As a patrol officer working gangs in East Los Angeles, my partner Jim Vetrovec and I once responded to City Terrace Park in the Geraghty gang area to back up a county park patrol unit. Late at night, the unit had detained a group of Geraghty gang members in the park at the top of a grassy hill. The encounter began in a non-threatening manner, and the park patrol officers knew most of the gang members. But the gang members, without discernable cause, suddenly surrounded and physically attacked the park patrol officers. We drove across the grass and up the hill and attempted to come to the assistance of the officers. Normally, the sight of an approaching ELA gang unit would have sent the gang members scattering, but not on this night.
Later, over a few beers, the thankful park patrol officers told us that the incident began with one of the smaller, less-aggressive gang members acting "out of character." The gang had been drinking before this encounter but that was "normal" according to the park police. The undersized gang member began yelling "que Rifa la Geraghty Loma" (Roughly, "Geraghty Loma is number one"). This was picked up by other gang members, as they formed a semi-circle around the officers. The south side of the hill ended in a three-story cliff drop to an empty lot below. The officers were trapped. The gang then began barking threats and insults; the undersized gang member suddenly led the attack.
We drove into the park and exited the radio car and began fighting. We pulled gang members off the park patrol officers and fought back to back. Vetrovec and I yelled out the gang members nicknames as we recognized them, but they continued the frenzied attack. We were now four, but outnumbered and surrounded.