The gang mentality can sometimes manifest itself as observable characteristics associated with gang membership. These symptoms of membership may take on a regional accent that could make them harder to spot. It will depend on what part of the country you are from. No matter where you are, you can look for these symptoms. Keep in mind that gang members may have one or two, all, or none of these characteristics:
- Use of gang slang
- Stylized clothing
- Substance abuse and sales
- Committing crime
- Presence of brands, burns, or body piercing
- Use of nicknames or monikers
- Use of hand signs
- Personal drawings and mementos reflecting gang mentality
- Personal associations
- Self-admittance of gang membership
- Associating with known gang members
- Gang group photos
- Use of cell phones, pagers, and scanners
Any single characteristic does not automatically mean gang membership. But finding a group of young people with some of them should certainly raise your suspicions.
In Your Backyard
A city of 75,000 or a town of 10,000 will not have the same gang issues as larger cities such as Los Angeles, Houston, or Chicago. The gang problems for them will be proportionate to the population size. For those in very small departments, the gang problems could be non-existent. But don't assume this is the case.
Based on information from many of you in smaller towns and cities, the first observable symptom tends to be graffiti found near local schools and shopping malls. Often, if identified as "tagger type," the group is left alone because it is not considered to be a street gang. Don't make that mistake. Across the country, these tagger groups have matured into violent street gangs. As groups get larger in size, they tend to become more violent.
Another symptom commonly reported in small towns is the presence of gang clothing. Clothing alone doesn't make a gang member, and gangster style clothing is also popular with young people not associated with gangs. However, it can be an indicator of gang membership.
Many gang members, in addition to wearing gangster-type clothing, also flash hand signs, talk with gang slang, and hang around in small groups. These are the kids you should contact. They could be the starting point to help you determine if they are gang members. It is a combination of factors that helps you determine the presence of a street gang.
This is not by any means a comprehensive list of gang characteristics, but knowing the common indicators of gang activity and membership could help identify gangs in your community. To accurately determine the presence of a gang, you have to have a good definition. Understanding that there are no stereotypical gang members will help overcome the denial hurdle. Using common sense and looking for the indicators of gang activity and membership will be a good way to start.
Al Valdez is an investigator with the Orange County (Calif.) District Attorney's Office and author of the book, Gangs.