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Columns : Editorial

How a Group Becomes a Gang

Not all street gangs wear colored bandanas and they don’t all start out with crime on their agenda.

January 01, 2002  |  by Al Valdez


Lifelong friends often belong to the same gang, sometimes one they themselves have created.

Some gang members do not have to go through an initiation ritual to belong to a gang. In fact, for some gang members there might not be a formal recognition that the group they belong to is a street gang. At least, until they get arrested for a gang-related crime.

Gang Influence

Some street gangs form from a small group of friends. They may be  schoolmates, neighbors or extended family. They basically grow up together. The friendship acts as the glue that binds the young kids together as a group. But just being friends does not qualify a group as a gang.

All too often, a gang influence is introduced into a group that convinces its members to participate in criminal activity. This influence is not always the formal introduction of a gang member into the group.

A group of friends may interact with neighborhood street gangs. Maybe they've been invited to a gang party. Maybe some of the members "hang out" with a street gang or are friends of street gang members. Sometimes older street gang members will solicit members of a group to help with drug sales or non-violent crime. The introduction into the street gang life can be subtle. Even if there are no jumpings in, no monikers and no tattoos. The street gang mentality seed can be planted through contacts with street gang members and this influence is shown through related behaviors.

The gang influence may simply come from members seeing other young people their age with money, cars or girls. They want the same. Without always realizing the consequences, many kids see criminal activity as a good way to gain a reputation and to earn money. Tax-free money. Drug sales, auto burglaries, residential burglaries, counterfeit credit cards and checks can bring in a lot of money, which can be very tempting to high school kids.

The Beginnings of Crime

Crime can begin with cigarette smoking, drinking and ditching school. These activities are many times viewed as "part of growing up."

The difference is for most kids these behaviors are transitory in nature. Doing those things does not become a way of life. For those kids who end up joining a gang these behaviors seem to become a normal part of life. Granted, by themselves they are non-violent, delinquent behaviors that many law enforcers would not think twice about.


Graffiti often signals the presence of a gang, whether or not members recognize their group as one.

The issue here is that just like friendship acts as a cohesive factor, so does the delinquent behavior. The glue that binds the group becomes stronger. Dabbling in this type of behavior for an extended period can lead to more serious criminal behavior over time.

A group's criminal activity may start out as petty theft or the sale of a single marijuana cigarette. A few kids may shoplift together or they may simply get into a fight together. Once the line into criminal activity has been crossed, the group is on its way to becoming a street gang. Often, the group may simply dabble in criminal activity that goes unnoticed or un-investigated.

Still, do we have a street gang operating here? Certainly, the current members would deny it. Almost always, so do their parents. Being street cops, how do you see a group of five or six kids who act this way? Are they a street gang?

Expanding the "Group"

As these kids get older, they in turn may solicit the help of yet younger kids. A kind of hierarchy develops. The older kids may even distance themselves from the primary group. Divisions of the street gang may develop based on age. Yet all the members would most likely tell you in a field contact they do belong to a gang. I have heard many kids say, "We're just a group of friends."


Many gang members deny they belong to a gang. Some don’t realize they do until it is too late: they’ve been arrested or they feel they can’t get out.

I have debriefed such gang members. They have confided that they grew up with a small group of friends. Ditching school, drinking and smoking tied the group together. For many of the kids both parents worked or a single parent worked long hours to make ends meet. The long hours provided the opportunity for the kids to escape school without their parents knowing.

These gang members went on to further describe that as a group they got away with a lot of crime. Burglary and drug sales were mentioned often. Most of the crime was committed to get money to "play" with. Money for these kids brought girls, guns, cars and status. As more and more money was needed or wanted the frequency of criminal behavior increased. As one member told me and as we have heard before, "I did not realize I was in a gang until it was too late." Many gang members do not realize they are in a gang because they do not "join," they just have  long term relationships with other members. As I often hear in interviews, "We grew up together."

Continuing the Cycle of Crime

For members of a gang, criminal behavior is an accepted part of their lifestyle, until they get arrested for a crime or they leave the street gang. Some members do not ever leave. They become role models for younger gang members who will put in work for their mentors (leaders). Unfortunately, these younger kids do not necessarily recognize or associate their behaviors with street gangs either. I've heard many reasons. Kids say, "We have no tattoos," "We're in school," or "We've never been arrested.

Street gang members make these same claims in denial of gang membership. Traditional gang indicia may not be a part of these gang members' lives.


The lack of tattoos and clothing usually associated with gangs does not preclude a person from being a gang member.

Sometimes a group's gang leadership levels have formal names but remain informal in operation. Other times there are formal operating procedures along with ranks for the members. A member of such a group may keep contact with gang life through an older brother or section leader or through reporting to an inner-circle of older gang members. Often, these kinds of gang members literally lead double lives. They may be young college students, businessmen, even married with children and still maintain membership with a street gang.

Cliques or sets of the same gang may develop when a member moves out of the area. He may take the gang name with him and establish a new group. Informal ties to the original gang may be maintained. As members continue to move, so does the gang. At each new location an older member may try to make his clique larger by recruiting new members. And the cycle goes on. Remember that the statement, "I am not in a gang" may not always be true. Be safe!

Al Valdez is an investigator with the Orange County (Calif.) District Attorney's Office and author of the book, Gangs.

Tags: Graffiti, Juvenile Crime, Gang tatoos


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