Most people in America today will tell you that gang activity is their number one crime concern. Gangs are no longer just a big city problem; they now operate in the smallest of towns nationwide. And despite official statistics that say gang crime is on the decline, gangs remain a growing cancer in our society.
But it didn't have to be this way. There was a time when gang officers were making real progress toward restraining the growth of gangs. Unfortunately, these officers were undercut by budgetary constraints, their own administrators, the whims of politicians, and ironically their own success.
In the late 1990s, a noticeable decline in gang activity occurred nationally. In response much of the funding for gang programs was redirected, resulting in the decommissioning or downsizing of gang units as officers were transferred.
Gang units were also decimated a few years later when 9/11 caused every major law enforcement agency to dedicate resources to terrorism response. Unable to add staffing, agencies quietly began reassigning gang unit personnel to anti-terrorism duties.
These agencies justified the elimination or downsizing of their gang units by claiming they had achieved victory in the struggle against gangs. That "victory" was, in many cases, really nothing more than illusion built on statistical manipulation and other smoke and mirror tricks.
By 2005 gang violence surged, approaching the record levels of the 1990s. In some jurisdictions officialdom had once more prematurely decreed the defeat of gangs, only to discover that like any malignant life form gangs are very resilient and difficult to eliminate.
To justify the transfer of personnel from gang units and responsibility for gang management to other officers, various agencies began to redefine what constituted a gang and gang crime as well as who was classified as a gang member. This allowed agencies to de-emphasize the actual gang problem.
Definitions of what is or is not a gang crime and who is or is not a gang member have been changed to yield different statistical results. And this game is easy because there is no real national definition of "gang" or "gang crime."
Definitions are critical to anti-gang operations. What a department decides to count as a gang incident will have not only political ramifications within the community, but may very well affect the success or failure of the gang program.
Unfortunately, the criteria for defining gang crime are very complex. Gang crime goes beyond what has become commonly referred to as "gang motivated" crime.
"Gang motivated" is a term used in a style of reporting that accounts for only those crimes committed by gang members wherein the gang as an entity profits. It is basically gang vs. gang assaults that account for most "gang motivated" crimes. Most gang crime against non-gang members is seldom tallied under this system.
The absurdity of this style of reporting is that it assumes gang-motivated crimes are the only crimes gang members are capable of committing. To really track gang crime, the gang's activity must be measured by all of the crimes committed by its members. Gangs are not top-down paramilitary organizations with leaders that dictate all of their actions. The gang as an entity does not commit crime, its members do.
This is why most law enforcement agencies have opted to use the style of reporting referred to as "gang related." In general, any incident involving a gang member as suspect or victim, particularly if the subject is a victim due to his gang affiliation, is counted using this style of reporting. This provides for a consistent and complete report on gang member-involved crime, and it minimizes subjective decision-making by officials.
But politicians don't like to use the gang-related style of reporting because the gang-motivated concept yields a sense of accomplishment. They can also cut back on spending in the affected area and boast of their accomplishments, which does nothing to prevent the gangs from doing their thing, which is to terrorize their communities.
And gang activity does not necessarily cease with the prosecution and incarceration of the offender. So proper identification is important for jail and prison officials so they can take steps to ensure the safety of the inmate and others in the inmate population. The standard gang accounting system within the corrections system is based on security threat groups, not necessarily gangs, which may or may not qualify as an STG. Therefore the system does not always agree with those used by law enforcement agencies. Correct counting of gang members is about decreasing the number of toe tags handed out in morgues inside jails and prisons and in the community.
As this debate continues to be fought among activists and politicians within our legislatures and on the streets, the only victors remain the "bad guys," and unfortunately, there is little light at the end of that very long tunnel.