Gangs exist everywhere in this country. Although we might like to think we are immune, no community should give in to this belief.

As I travel across the country, I often get the honor of visiting small towns and cities. The local constabulary (that's us street cops) are always friendly and usually oblige me with a short ride-along. Often, we have something in common: our jobs include contact with gangs. These street cops and some detectives tell me about their particular gang problems, who the gangsters are, and where they can be found. Sometimes I photograph the graffiti or talk to a few of the gang members. In my travels I have seen gangs in Chicago, New York, and many small towns you might not think would have a gang problem.

Street gangs are in every state of the union and a few have international status. The one common factor I have run into in visiting 27 states is denial. This can especially be a problem in small or rural communities. Many community members make comments such as, "We don't have gangs like L.A. These kids are just misguided." or "We can't have gangs here because we make too much money." But gangs aren't confined to big cities. Comments like these are fueled by denial and misconceptions about what and where gangs are.

Definition

Street gangs come in various forms. Some have a long history, while others may be recently formed. Some only have male members while others have a co-ed membership, and still others base membership on ethnicity. Some gangs in the country resemble Los Angeles- or Chicago-based street gangs, while others do not. To identify a gang, you first have to have a clear idea of what a street gang is.

There is no nationally accepted definition of a gang, so I will suggest this one. A street gang is 1) a group of three or more 2) with a common identifier (sign, symbol or name) and an 3) ongoing association that 4) commits crimes. Pretty simple, right? Not always.

The biggest problem in identifying and cracking down on gangs early can be identifying the crimes they commit as gang crimes. This requires acknowledging that your town might have a gang problem. A gang crime might be a simple misdemeanor.

For example, if a group of kids calling themselves "TLT" places their graffiti on highway traffic signs and walls within your city, it is a gang by definition. They might not be a violent street gang with a national reputation, but nevertheless, they are a street gang.

Too many people I have spoken to tell me gangs always commit violent crime and because their group hasn't, "they are only imitating or are wannabes."

All too often, groups like these are not identified as street gangs and so are left alone by law enforcement. These groups, if left unwatched, can become violent street gangs. Many times, members of these groups are from within the local community and may be from well-known families. In a small town or city where everyone knows everyone else this could become a problem. It is hard to admit, anywhere you live, "My kid is a member of a street gang."

Gang members can come from any walk of life, from any part of the community, and from any socio-economic status. There are no stereotypical rules of membership. Gang members can go to high school and do well. Gang members can work full or part time. Gang members can be parents. They can be women. And, yes, they can live in small towns. Ultimately, it is the behavior of the individual that confirms gang membership, not social status, education level, arrest status, ethnicity, or address.[PAGEBREAK]

Symptoms

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
  • Graffiti
  • Tattoos
  • 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.

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