In California it is not a crime to be a gang member. It is, however, a crime to be in a street gang while committing crimes for the benefit of or at the direction of the street gang.
While in and of themselves these crimes may carry a strict sentence, when the gang crime allegation is added the punishment can be greatly enhanced. As such, many gang members are oftentimes hesitant to admit gang membership. The same may be true in your state.
As a prosecutor and a San Diego police sergeant, respectively, we have both sat through and testified at many gang trials where the defense attempted to discount our expertise and undermine the reasons a particular individual was documented as a gang member. Gang members also sit through their own trials or the trials of other gang members and typically learn firsthand the true nature and repercussions of being convicted of a gang crime.
While legislation has shown aggressiveness in enforcing against gang violence, it may also be working to our detriment. This is why gang documentation and gang field interviews are critical to fighting the war against gangs.
Uniformed patrol or gang unit officers are constantly challenged with the identification and determination of a possible gang member's affiliation. Many of the younger gang associates do not bear tattoos indicating gang affiliation, nor do they wear the clothing and colors easily identifiable with a particular gang.
Patrol officers are an essential source of gang information and usually make up the front line defense against gangs. Through field contacts and observations, they can supply confirmation of an individual's gang membership.
Filling Out the FI Card
A properly completed field interview (FI) card is like gold. It can be instrumental in officially documenting a street gang member or updating the status of a documented gang member or associate. But two things must occur for the information contained on an FI card to be of use.
First, an officer must take the time and initiative to fill out the FI card; secondly, the card must be accurately and completely filled out. The important part of conducting the field interview is to be as detailed as possible and note anything that may assist investigators with any follow up needed on the person in question.
Field interviews are the bread and butter of any gang investigator and most often an important part of an investigation. Not only do complete and accurate field interviews allow investigators to document gang members and their affiliates, they also provide information even when a person's gang affiliation cannot be verified.
Often field interviews are utilized to document as a gang member someone who has committed a crime. This retroactive gang documentation is often sufficient, but it is typically better to document the gang member at the time of the crime.
We have seen field interviews listing a person's crime potential as simply "gangs" without any indication of why the person has gang as a crime potential. In some cases there has been indication of a particular street gang. For instance, merely noting something similar to "Gangs Skyline" on an FI card with no supporting information is essentially useless to an investigator trying to document a person as being involved in a criminal street gang.
Field Interview Techniques
As an officer in the field, there are things you can do to make your field contacts with gang members more productive. Several interview techniques can be applied across most street gangs, regardless of ethnicity. Here are several tips from experience.
Gang members uniformly demand respect, whether they are entitled to it or not. This can usually be addressed by having a fair but firm attitude and demeanor with gang members.
If you are talking to a gang member about something significant, such as information about specific crimes or other gang members, do it in an area where other gang members cannot hear your conversation. When you receive the information you needed, do not do anything that will let the other gang members know that the subject was cooperative with you.
It's also important that you establish your authority, if not garner gang members' respect. If you tell a gang member that you are going to arrest him if he does not stop some activity, and then he does it again, you need to arrest him. If you fail to follow through with what you say, the gang will continue to challenge your authority and not respect you.
Be sure to isolate gang members suspected of being involved in a crime immediately so they do not have the opportunity to get their stories straight. If you do put them together, have a recording device in place to capture the content of the conversation and use it against them at a later time.
As you are making the contact, continue looking for any indicators of criminal activity that would allow you to upgrade a consensual FI contact into a detention and your detention into an arrest. Keep in mind that almost any criminal violation will support a detention (municipal code violations, curfew violation, loitering, possession of alcohol by minors, etc.).
It is important to document the violation, or suspected violation, on the field interview report in the "Crime Potential" box and briefly describe it in the remarks section of the FI. It's best to use a valid criminal section for the crime potential box along with whatever section is used to send the FI to the gang unit.
It is also important to remember that gang members will often discard any contraband on them when they see an officer approaching them. They might also have weapons and other contraband hidden in an area close by where it's accessible but not in their possession should they get stopped.
For this reason it is important to check the area surrounding the contacted gang members for abandoned weapons, drugs, or other contraband. If any are found, the contact may become a detention while you investigate to whom the items belongs. Even if the contraband cannot immediately be linked to an individual, the person no longer has it in his or her possession and it can be disposed of per your department's policy. Or it can be tested for prints, DNA, etc., at a later time depending on the item.
While you are talking to the subject(s) and obtaining their biographical information, be professional and mindful of the fact that most gang members are very conscious of what they believe to be "respect." If you disrespect a gang member in front of his "homeboys" or female friends, he is less likely to tell you anything about himself or the gang. The disrespect does not have to be real, only perceived by the gang member. Occasionally the "dissed" gang member will become confrontational or violent toward an officer to save face with his friends, which can escalate the contact.
After you have established open communication with the suspected gang member because of your command presence, inquire about his gang affiliation and moniker, or street name.
Each officer will do this in a different way. Develop a method that works well for you and build upon that. It will benefit you immensely during these contacts if you are familiar with the gangs in your area: who the local gang members are and what areas they "claim" or hang out in. If the subject is hesitant to talk about gang affiliation, ask him about his clothing, belt buckles, tattoos, or any other indicators of gang involvement you have noticed during the contact.
Most of the information requested on a field interview is self-explanatory. The agency information is very important to track down the officer or related reports for use later in court. Dates of events are obviously very important for tracking gang-related incidents by date and time in addition to location. That can help determine what hours the gang is most active and help plan anti-gang operations, such as sweeps or narcotic operations, based upon the dates and times the gangs in the area seem most active.
If you're conducting a large field interview of multiple people at once, make sure the same interview location and time appear on every related field interview card. This will help in linking them together in later investigations and computer checks.
Many times five or six officers can be contacting a large group of gang members. The officers on one side of the corner may input the address as 1200 Main Street, while officers just 20 feet away may write down 100 Elm Street. This makes later computer checks a little more difficult and may make it look like the group was not all together.
Do you have tips for documenting gang members? Tell us in the comments below.