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How to...Crack Down on Gangs

While the problem isn’t going away, some agencies are making progress in stopping gang activity.

January 01, 2004  |  by Shelly Feuer Domash

Gang activity continues to steadily rise throughout the United States, despite law enforcement’s attempts to deal with the epidemic. It’s like a cancer that begins in a vital organ and then spreads its deadly cells throughout the body, defying efforts to eradicate the disease. Gangs are spreading to every small town, village, and city in the country. No one is immune and law enforcement is scrambling to get on top of the problem.

Dealing with gangs has become a priority for many law enforcement agencies. The public often makes this job more difficult by believing, “It’s not a problem in our neighborhood.” While each department has its own method of combating the gang problem, some of the basics remain the same.

The most essential tool, departments say, is communication—communication among law enforcement agencies, and law enforcement’s communication with parents, community leaders, schools, and current and prospective gang members.

Starting at the Beginning

Sometimes the best tactic is to stop a problem before it starts. Some police agencies are finding ways to keep kids from joining gangs.

Det. Rick Rodriguez of the Arlington County (Va.) Sheriff’s Office says his agency’s communication campaign began on a simple level.

“In 1997 we were getting frustrated seeing these young juveniles out at three in the morning when they should have been home,” Rodriguez says.

After watching these kids and taking reports, he visited their parents’ homes and was surprised at the reception he got. The families hadn’t known what their children were doing, and they were not aware of the signs of gang involvement. But they were willing to learn.

After this revelation, the department began educating parents on what to look for so they could keep their kids out of gangs or get them out before it was too late.

The same parents Rodriguez and his colleagues first contacted then took it upon themselves to become more involved. They recommended that gang officers meet with all local parents as a group, not just individually. As a result of these meetings, the parents began a network through which they could police their kids on their own. “If Johnny said he was going to Mario’s house his parents could follow up and call,” Rodriguez explains.

Parents also asked local police officers to speak with their kids to scare them with the truth.

“We said, ‘Yes,’” says Rodriguez. “We wanted these kids to understand what it’s really like to be a gang member: you will end up in jail, in the hospital, or in the cemetery.”

Rodriguez found one of the biggest problems was that most of the kids becoming involved in gangs in Arlington County came from single-parent homes where the parent had to work more than one job. This meant that however much these parents wanted to be involved in their children’s lives, they weren’t able to stay home and keep an eye on them.

To help compensate for a lack of supervision at home, the agency’s program has since expanded to include school officials, teachers, and counselors. These participants have been instructed on how to identify gang members and how to mediate if rival gang members are in the same class.

“We made the gang members aware that we looked at them from the street, from home, and from school,” Rodriguez says. “Our main goal was to break the cycle of recruitment; if we could disrupt the cycle then we were winning.”

But even with all this help at the ground level, it’s tough to fight the glamorous image many youth associate with the gang lifestyle. “Realistically, with the media, with ‘gangsta rap’ and some of the movies and video games out there, it’s hard to compete with what the kids see,” says Rodriguez.

In rural areas it can be even more of a struggle to convince the community to combat a gang problem, because they usually don’t want to believe it exists.

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