When citizens hear the word "gang," they usually conjure up stereotypical images of Hispanic, Asian, black or white thugs roaming inner-city streets. But most cops working the gang detail understand that looks can be deceiving.
Gang members can come from all walks of life or social-economic backgrounds. They can be straight-A students, alter boys, kids with no prior police contacts-in other words, gang members can be anyone.
Within any particular gang, there may be several subcategories; for example, Asian gangs can be divided up into Southeast Asian, Pacific Islander, Japanese, Chinese or Korean street gangs. Each group has unique characteristics that distinguish them from the others. However, they all share some general characteristics, or "profilers," such as tattoos, hairstyles and clothing.
Gang profilers have three functions within the subculture: They can act as a greeting, challenge, form of intimidation or an advertisement of a person's gang affiliation and/or belief system.
Members may share some or all of the profilers. And law enforcement officers may use these in making a "gang diagnosis." There is no set or minimum number of profilers needed-each case must be studied individually.
However, as with any categorizing system, there are going to be exceptions and the same holds true in this case. Law enforcement experts in the past few years have noted the existence of gang members who don't fit any of the profilers. A young adult who appears to be law-abiding, with no police record or prior police contact may still be a likely suspect for a violent, gang-related crime.
However, denial has led to delays in identifying gangs and gang-related violence in some communities. The "it can't happen here" attitude can be dangerous. This, in turn, leads to delays in suppression, intervention and prevention efforts.
It's important to learn and recognize the profilers of local gangs to avoid these delays. Some important signs to look for are common tattoos, graffiti, stylized clothing and communication systems.
Tattoos have been around for thousands of years, many times symbolizing a right of passage from childhood to adulthood, or a sign of rebellion. Tattoos today are sometimes called "body art." But for the gang member, they can also be a source of information about affiliation and membership.
Tattoos can be located on any part of the body, including genitals. The type of gang being investigated will usually dictate the exact types of tattoos you will find among members. Different gangs often share tattoos, however.
For example, probably the most common is the three-dot tattoo, with the dots arranged to form a triangle. The dots represent three Spanish words, "mi vida loca." Translated, these three words mean "my crazy life"-representing the mentality and reality of gang life. Those who have this tattoo are currently, or have been, affiliated with the gang subculture.
The ultimate for some members are prison gang tattoos. Often covering large areas of the body, they signify loyalty, commitment and gang affiliation.
Affiliation may be indicated with tattoos in a number of ways. The phrases, "pure wood," "puro" or "yellow pride" indicate gang ethnicity. "Pure wood" is a skinhead tattoo proclaiming a pure Aryan background. "Puro," the Spanish word for "pure." is used by many Hispanic, turf-oriented street gangs. "Yellow pride" is often seen with Southeast Asian street gangs, denoting their heritage and pride.
If any of these groups were to meet in public, tattoos alone could catalyze a conflict. Among skinheads, a "pure wood" tattoo would be a form of greeting-"I am one of you."' However, for the Hispanic or Asian street gangster, this tattoo is a challenge.
Drug usage is common among street gang members and is often part of the lifestyle. The most common drugs include alcohol, marijuana, crack cocaine, inhalants, methamphetamine and LSD.
Some gangs specialize in drug sales, operating like a small business. For these, a large profit can be made on the black market.[PAGEBREAK]
Off the Wall
Graffiti is another important profiler to look for. This communication system can tell stories, issue challenges, give death threats, indicate partnerships or mergers between gangs and send messages.
Graffiti can also be used to mark off territorial boundaries or to announce the presence of a gang in a neighborhood. It may be used by one gang to show dominance over other groups, or it may provide valuable information such as who committed a crime or a gang roster.
For some gangs, the color of the paint used to write the graffiti itself may also be important, indicating gang affiliation.
The type of clothing a gang member wears may also provide a great deal of information. Stylized clothing may include certain brand names, colors or styles. The clothing style can become the street uniform, showing what "team" someone is on.
Color, demonstrated by the significance of the colors blue and red for Crips and Bloods, respectively, may also be critical. These two colors have a similar significance for Hispanic street gangsters, especially outside of California. (Red indicates that a member is from Northern California, while blue indicates that someone is from Southern California.) White is the color of choice for skinhead gangs. Old-style railroad handkerchiefs are often used to display gang colors.
Stylized clothing may also include a certain brand of baseball cap, initial-style belt buckle or sport shoes. A special style of pants or jackets may be worn by members of a certain group as well. For example, one clothing style often associated with gangsters is the three-quarter length, cut-off pants and high-top socks.
Influence from the movie, music and entertainment industries may also have an impact on the stylized clothing of street gangsters.
Young people often identify with their favorite rap singer or movie character and may dress the same way. While some youths may do it to merely imitate the entertainer or because they like the style, remember that certain styles may still be symbolic of gang membership.
Hand signs are used as a non-verbal way of communicating among members and between gangs. The fingers and hands are used to make letters of the alphabet, usually representing the gang name. Some gangsters practice this form of communication so much that it has become a kind of sign language.
Flashing or "throwing" signs is a common way to initiate challenges or conflict between gangs, show dominance or indicate gang affiliation (see photo above). The flashing of hand signs to a police officer is usually a gesture of disrespect or challenge.
Gang slang is another good indicator to watch out for. Every type of gang has its own vocabulary. Most of the time, it is a mixture of English and another language. The Hispanic street gang language was once known as "Calo," a mixture of English and street Spanish. Today, the Hispanic street gang language has evolved. Terms like homeboy, homegirl, carnal and homie can all refer to a fellow gang member.
You can expect a unique slang language from tagger crews, black, Asian, prison, motorcycle and hybrid gangs. Slang may indicate gang type and affiliation.
Knowing and understanding this verbal language is paramount to successful interviews and field contacts. Knowing the right buzz words and when to use them may be the key to establishing field relationships or working with an informant. It may also tip you off to danger.
Remember that for many gangsters this has become sort of a verbal code-so be safe.
Al Valdez is an Orange County District Attorney Investigator and the author of the book, "Gangs." He is also a consultant to the Orange County Board of Education, the California Department of Justice and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.