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.


Names and Numbers

When conducting a field interview of a gang member, you will find that many will pretend to be ignorant of the English language and many others will lie about their name (shocking, I know). But savvy officers can usually suss this out if they're persistent enough.

Many gang members of Hispanic decent, for example, use two last names, a Spanish concept involving the use of paternal and maternal last names. For instance, the name Juan Manuel Garcia-Flores is composed of four elements: Juan is the first name, Manuel is the middle name, Garcia is the paternal last name and the legal name, and Flores is the maternal last name. The names are traditionally joined by a hyphen, the conjunction Y, or by nothing. It is important to recognize both last names and record them accurately in criminal records.

Failure to properly document an individual by his or her last name will likely result in confusion. Sophisticated offenders are aware of this confusion and will attempt to hinder law enforcement, especially when dealing with Hispanic and Asian gangs, when in fact most know enough to realize what is being said and what actions are about to be taken. They will profess their innocence, frequently using the phrases "No problem," or "No entiendo," hoping to make the officer lose interest or record the false information.

Take time to investigate and record the correct moniker. Does he have an address book on his person with gang names on it that can tell you his moniker and the monikers of his companions? Does he have graffiti on his hat, belt, shoes, etc., that may tell you his moniker?

If a subject is carrying an address book containing phone numbers and monikers, take the time to record that information for gang investigators. Many times the gang members will have personal photos in their wallet, maybe of friends and family. It has been beneficial to look at the backs of the photos and read any personal messages that may be addressed to a specific moniker. The reality is that when many gang crimes occur the victims may know only that it was "Speedy" or "Flaco" who was responsible; they won't know the person's real name. Therefore, obtaining a moniker is very important.

Phone numbers are also critical. And don't forget to always include the area code. Get the cell number of any cell phones on the subject's person. If possible, review the numbers that have been called recently and make note of the service provider. All of this may become very important in gang investigations at a later time.

Photo Ops

An essential part of your contact with any gang member is taking a photograph of the subject. Photographs are critical to the gang documentation process, so make sure you take them under the right conditions.

First of all, there are legal issues that you must be aware of when photographing subjects during field interview contacts.

The photograph you take may be used to identify the person as a suspect in a serious case down the road and can be a decisive factor in court. A photograph obtained as a result of an illegal detention can be suppressed in court, as will (probably) any identification made of the suspect by the victims and witnesses utilizing this photograph.

However, a person who exposes his or her facial features, and/or body in general, to the public, in a public place, has no reasonable expectation of privacy in appearance. It is not therefore a constitutional violation to photograph the person. Basically, you can photograph a subject during a field interview situation if the subject gives consent or if the photograph is obtained during a lawful detention.

Take a good quality photograph. Start off by using a good quality camera. Then be sure to use a high-resolution setting. The photograph should be taken against a light-colored background and should show the subject from mid-chest up, or from the same distance each time for consistency. Instruct people to remove hats and glasses, look straight ahead, and not smile. If the subject is wearing a hat or glasses, you can take a photograph with and without the items if clothing is going to be an identifying issue; if so you may want to take a full-length head-to-toe photograph as well.

Leave enough extra space above the head (approximately a half-inch on the photo) to allow for adjustments in a photographic line-up folder if you use those. If the photo is taken too close the subject's face will not fit properly in a line-up folder, and if the photo is taken too far away the face will be too small. If you use an automated photo line-up program, using a digital camera saves time and effort and eliminates the need to scan photos before using them in the line-up.

If you can, take a group shot of all the home boys throwing up gang signs all gathered in a group. This is great evidence down the road when the gangster says that he or she is not a gang member. We have usually gotten groups to allow me to take their photo by telling them they can have a copy for them to keep. You keep the investigative copy and then give the group one or two copies depending upon your film supply.

In one instance we took a digital photo of a group of Asian gang members and actually got two of the five in the group to give up their e-mail addresses so we could send them copies of the photo, which we did. Many times the photos they walk away with will be found during a probation or parole search down the road by the next officer who encounters the gang members.

[PAGEBREAK]Physical Identifiers

It is critically important to record all tattoos and other scars and marks; make them lift shirts (if appropriate) to expose their backs, stomachs, and chests. Do not take their word for it that they don't have tattoos. If they have a picture tattoo, describe it with as much detail as possible and take a photograph if possible.

Specific clothing is also very important. It may match clothing worn while committing crimes or it may help document the gang member if the clothing is associated with a specific gang.

When all photos have been taken, it is important to make the appropriate comments on the photograph. The subject's full name and date of birth, circumstances of photo (arrest, detention, consent, evidence, or investigation), case or FI numbers, officer's name, officer's I.D. number, and the date of the photograph should all be written on the back. This information is critical if the image is to be used in a photographic line-up or as evidence in a future court proceeding.

Vehicle information is also a critical element. Most gang members drive cars not registered to them, and some may even drive without a license or insurance. Your FI may be the only way to link a specific gang member to a specific vehicle. Write the plate, registered owner info, color, and detailed description down on the contact card or FI.

Documentation Criteria

The most critical part of a field interview is why the person was stopped. What happened to cause you to stop the gang member? What specific criteria did they violate? Document what they said, what they were doing, who they were with, etc. Were they looking into car windows, running from the scene of a gang fight, or just loitering in front of a store?

In the crime potential section, clearly indicate on the FI card that it is gang related by putting "Gang Related" and whatever code or section that is used by your department's gang unit in the crime potential section or narrative box. This will help ensure that the FI gets sent to the gang unit where it belongs. It is also highly recommended that you add the section of law the person was violating when you made contact with him or her to help justify the field interview. Put the documentation criteria in the narrative, such as, "admitted gang member, wearing gang hat, and was with two other admitted gang members."

Documentation criteria are essential. The criteria should be explained in as much detail as possible. The usual criteria consist of the following:

  • Subject you are talking to telling you he or she is a member of a specific gang. This is the strongest evidence of gang membership.
  • Wearing gang-specific clothing, tattoos, or "paraphernalia" only associated with a specific gang. The important factor with these criteria is that the items are clearly related to a specific gang. Be specific and list all of the identifying tattoos the subject has. If you need more space to document the tattoos, use the remarks section or continue to list them on the back of the FI.
  • Subject arrested for "delinquent and/or criminal activity" with another known gang member. This means that the companion must have claimed his or her gang membership at the time of the contact or the companion is already documented as a gang member.
  • "Associates" of gangs who may not (yet) be members of the gang but frequently associate with known members. These criteria can also be used when a suspected member of the gang will not claim membership to law enforcement but commonly hangs out with fellow gang members.
  • A "reliable informant" identifying the subject as a gang member. This criterion is rarely used to initially document a subject as a gang member, but it can be helpful to support and maintain a subject's current documented status as a member of a gang.

In order for a subject to be initially "documented" as a gang member at my agency, at least three of the above criteria must be met. This may vary from department to department. This can be done in one contact (i.e. subject is arrested with other gang members while wearing a "Menudo Town" hat, and has "MT" tattooed on his wrist) or three separate contacts (i.e. subject is hanging out with "MT" gang members on each occasion). This requirement also varies from department to department.

There are many other indicators of gang involvement that can be used to support a person's current documentation status. Some of these include witnessing the subject "throwing" gang-related hand signs, the subject's name or moniker and/or phone number appearing on a gang list, and the subject corresponding with a known gang member in custody and discussing gang activities.

Any of the above criteria for documenting gang members or other gang involvement indicators located during an arrest or FI should be indicated in the narrative of the report. If you obtain substantial gang information during a contact or arrest, write a separate report detailing the facts and forward it to the Gang Unit.

Confirm the information given. Does the address exist? Call the phone number. Is it really the person's house? Take time to be complete and accurate. Quiz them on the information that they have provided. If you are not satisfied, have an additional unit check the houses while you have the subject confirm the information or have your dispatcher verify the information provided in a database or by making phone calls if necessary. Finally, make sure the officer's name and beat are recorded so if/when the FI is used in court to prove a gang enhancement, the officer can be located to come to court and testify about the contact.

Changing with the Times

For a variety of reasons, gang subculture is constantly evolving, thereby creating new challenges for law enforcement and prosecutors. The number of gang members documented on the street by the San Diego Police Department has been decreasing in the past decade. But this doesn't mean there's an actual decrease in gang membership and gang activity here or anywhere else. In talking with gang investigators, there is a common belief that gang members are using more subtle ways to perpetuate and advertise their gang affiliation and the crimes they commit.

Cell phones and social networking Websites provide new high-tech ways to promote gang activity. As a result, it's not enough to just document gang members on the street. Now we must also navigate this esoteric sub-culture form of identification in addition to the more traditional forms of documentation. Be alert to all of these cues the next time you contact a potential gang member. 

Matthew O'Deane has been a District Attorney Investigator in San Diego since March of 2002 and has been assigned to the Gang Prosecution Unit. Prior to working for the District Attorney, he worked for the National City Police Department for almost 10 years, spending several years working street gangs and narcotics. He has testified numerous times as an expert in street gangs.

Sgt. William "Patrick" Murphy has been a San Diego PD police officer since 1990. He has over nine years experience as a gang investigator and taught street gang courses at the regional academy for five years. He has also worked in the Vice Unit and Patrol and has testified numerous times as an expert in street gangs.