To begin with I must say that I have worked with and admire many social scientists and university professors. I have recommended some of their books in my law enforcement gang training and even in this blog. The studies written about by Joan Moore, Malcolm Klein, and James Diego Vigil, I consider must-read classic texts on the gang problem.

However, many times when an academic gang expert is called as a defense witness, the prosecutor, the judge, and the jury are unduly influenced by his or her standing. Even the law enforcement gang expert might be intimidated by all the titles and letters before and after a witness’s name.

But just remember, they have book knowledge you have battle knowledge hard-won from the streets.

Let’s create a typical academic gang expert, professor Albert Nught, Ph.D., the author of numerous books and papers dealing with the history, and sociology, of juvenile delinquency and youth gangs in America. He heads the sociology and social anthropology section of a prestigious university and was recently given an award by the National Organization of Psychologists & Educators (NOPE) and the Association of Social Scientists of America (ASS of A) for his work with “at risk youths.”

The learned professor Nught has been subpoenaed as a gang expert for the defense. His purpose is to discredit the expert gang testimony that you might give in a court proceeding against gang member “Billy Baddass.”

Your captain and the county prosecutor are beginning to panic. They have requested your help in preparing for the testimony of the defense’s expert, professor Nught. They ask you questions like: Have you read any of his scores of books? Have you attended any of his classes or lectures? What college degrees do you possess?

Here’s the ammunition you need to counter the famed professor Nught and many of his colleagues.

Most sociologists get their information from reading other sociologists and academic writers in related fields. Sociologists hope to impress the jury with their degrees and scholarly publications. Sometimes they write opinions and studies based on statistical data. Look at Nught’s listed published papers and you’ll see that’s probably what he did.

Occasionally sociologists interview subjects (gang members) in clinical settings and document these interviews. Later they interpret these interviews based on sociological theories.

The academic gang expert’s “expert” opinion will be based on these academic theories. Other sociologists will have very different opinions based on different input and their own theories and the philosophies that they advocate. Although these differing sociologists might hold similar positions in equivalent universities, some of their ideas might seem kooky or extreme to a jury. In fact, many sociologists disagree with theories on the very definition of a gang, what a gang member is, how gangs start, and how to best deal with them.

Most sociologists are vulnerable to cross-examination because they have little or no real contact with local street gangs in the gang’s natural environment. Street gangs in America are covert criminal organizations, making any true statistical or clinical studies difficult. Gang crimes are commonly under reported for many reasons including: the victims’ fear of reprisal, the suspects not being identified as gang members, and many of the gang victims adhering to the gang code of silence.

Also, when interviewed by sociologists, gang members commonly lie. They do this for several reasons including: to appear less criminally culpable, because the academic interviewer has little ability to verify and check the facts so it’s fun to BS them, and because discussing gang business with people outside the gang is prohibited. Consequently, a lot of academic gang member interviews are full of inaccurate information.

Gang members also lie to law enforcement gang experts. But unlike academic experts, the police gang expert can personally witness the conduct of gang members in the field and corroborate their stories. Many police gang experts gain their expertise through thousands of contacts over many years with active gang members and legally qualified gang informants, as opposed to the few dozen interviewed by sociologist. Also, the qualified police gang expert must give his or her opinion in a public trial before the legal and law enforcement community. So police gang experts with kooky and extreme opinions are soon weeded out.

In court, the sociologist usually gives generic information on gangs and rarely even knows the details of the specific local gangs. Each time he tries to talk about the general sociology of criminal gangs and gang theories in answering the prosecutors’ questions, have the prosecutor take him back to specific details in this area and on this specific gang and its members.

If you face a sociologist gang expert in court, have the prosecutor ask him or her the following questions:

What is the name of the defendant’s gang?

What are its identifying symbols?

When and where did it begin?

How many members does it have?

What are the boundaries of the gang’s turf?

How many cliques (sub-groups) does it have?

Who is the gang’s leader?

What are the common hand signs used by this gang?

When was the defendant jumped in?

How many members of this gang have you interviewed?

Did you interview them in their natural environment?

Are you familiar with this gang’s common slang?

Do you speak Spanish?

Do you speak Calo?

What does Vato mean?

What is a Sureño?

Do you know the common Sureño identifying signs?

Did you grow up in a gang area?

How is this gang different from gangs in other specific cities? New York? Los Angeles? Chicago?

How is this gang different from the gangs in your old neighborhood?   
How would you develop gang informants?

Most sociologist will be unable to answer the vast majority of these questions.

So if you have to testify and you know that someone like professor A. Nught will be the defense’s expert, remember there is no substitute for knowledge learned firsthand from experience in the field. Professor Nught and other academic gang experts would give their eyeteeth to see what gang cops witness every day.

As they say: “Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach.”


Richard Valdemar
Richard Valdemar

Sergeant (Ret.)

Sgt. Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs.

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Sgt. Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs.

View Bio