Photos, jewelry, hairstyles and body piercing are among the obvious physical traits investigators look for when profiling gangs. But understanding how the members think, act and feel also can help police develop a rapport with members, and in turn, help expedite gang-related investigations.
Since a gang is considered a surrogate family for most members with the gang family replacing the traditional family-special occasions are memorialized via "family photos" and celebrations. However, members are often holding weapons and/or flashing hand-signs in these photographs.
These pictures are of great value to a gang investigator. Common sense dictates that gang members would not allow someone they did not know or trust to take their picture, or more importantly, be in it. Therefore, everyone in the photo must be a trusted member, making these snapshots great evidence of an individual's gang affiliation and membership.
Some gang members even carry their own business cards with their moniker and affiliation on them to impress peer and rival gang members. Some business cards may even advocate special religions. For example, skinhead or white supremacist gangs may carry cards that indicate affiliation with religions that cater to the white supremacist movement.
Special types of jewelry may also help determine gang membership or affiliation. For example, many taggers like to wear unique necklaces that resemble marking pens, while some skinheads wear sliver swastika necklaces. Some Bloods or Crips wear excessive amounts of gold rings and necklaces.
Another trend among gangsters is branding or body piercing. Branding has been practiced for many years among the midwestern Folk and People Nation gangs, and it is now becoming more popular on the West Coast. The type of brand and its location may indicate affiliation with a particular gang. However, brands should not be confused with cigarette burn marks, which many members do to gain status.
Members also sport pierced tongues, noses, eyebrows, lips, genitals and nipples. But these types of body modifications are gaining popularity in general and are not only practiced by gang members.
In terms of hairstyles, the shaved head is the most popular style now on the West Coast; just a few years ago, most Hispanic gang members had their hair combed straight back. However, a haircut alone does not identify gang membership.
Taking Care of Business
The gang mentality is founded on loyalty and commitment to the gang. But with this loyalty and commitment comes the willingness to be hurt or to hurt someone else for your gang.
It is well known that gang members use guns to "take care of business." Guns, especially handguns and assault rifles, have become the symbol of power and authority for them. "He who has the gun," one saying goes, "has the power." It's a sad reality of the gang subculture.
Assaults on police officers by gang members have been increasing. In some cases, gang members have purposely led police officers into shooting confrontations or down pre-determined routes they've set up.
Along with buying, stealing and using guns, gang members consider violence a part of daily life. It can be used as a tool to collect information. intimidate or control other people.
Violence in general has been increasing within the 14- to 24-year old bracket-the same group in which approximately 70 percent of all street gangsters belong to.
But because of special sentencing enhancements such as California's Step Act, which allows gang indicia to be used as evidence. Many gang members are currently refusing and denying gang membership.
Prior police contacts, field interviews, association with other known gang members. Gang photographs and probation or parole status are all useful in proving membership. And parole and probation officers can be very helpful.
Gang violence is often indiscriminate, unpredictable and opportunistic. The mentality allows members to defend themselves with deadly force against the slightest insult or threat. The "playing field" is primed, since rival gang members arm themselves for the same reasons. So a fatal confrontation is almost inevitable.
Gang insults can be subtle. The presence of rival gang graffiti on turf is an insult, as is flashing hand-signs to their rivals or crossing out another gang's graffiti. And the mentality supports the gang philosophy that "no insult goes unanswered, no matter how small."
So what happens when gang violence erupts? It is not uncommon for an innocent bystander to be injured or killed, as we have all seen on news reports. In most cases, however, the person injured is a gang member.
An assault by a rival gang demands retribution by the victim gang, and the payback mentality allows for revenge. All too many times gang unit officers hear, "Take one of us out and we'll take three of them out." It is easy to see how a gang war could quickly develop. Neither side will stop because each assault motivates another. A whole community could be affected within a short period of time.
The "code of silence" is a practice that has been adopted by all gangs. This mentality says that if a gang member cooperates with the police, he or she is a "rat," and has disgraced himself or herself and the gang.
During an investigation, it is not uncommon for an injured gang member to confide that he or she knows who shot them but refuse to reveal the shooter's identity.
These victims all have the confidence that the matter will be taken care of by their fellow gang members and don't want to be known as a rat. This desire, coupled with the dislike of law enforcement, fuels the motive to not cooperate. This issue can be compounded by language and cultural differences as well.
Developing a Rapport
There are ways to get the needed information; one is to use the salesman's technique of "breaking bread." For example, offer a Coke or snack to the person you are interviewing. A cup of coffee can actually go a long way. One of the keys to communicating is developing something in common with the person. By giving that person something to eat or drink, you force the person to subconsciously form a bond with you.
Your demeanor and presentation style are also important. The old saying, "You catch more flies with honey than vinegar," applies here.
You don't have to like the person you are interviewing, but by treating them with a little respect, you will be amazed at the cooperation and information you receive.
The profiling system can allow you to quickly determine whether or not an incident is gang related. This speed in diagnosis can help you handle witnesses and victims. And since gang cases are probably the most difficult to investigate and prosecute, the speed in choosing an investigative strategy can go a long way.
Al Valdez is an investigator with the Orange County (Calif.) District Attorney's Office and author of the book, "Gangs."