Photo: Richard Valdemar.

Photo: Richard Valdemar.

How many people have you come into contact with who claim to be gang members? Law enforcement officers arrest and document gang members daily, but often forget about the gang prevention aspect of our work.

As officers, we're often consumed by the many cases and leads we develop that hopefully lead to an arrest of a gang member. Meanwhile, the "gonna bes" are out there doing what they can to replace the gang member we just took off of the street.

Some of you may know what I'm talking about when I say "gonna be." The "gonna be" is the kid who stands at a fork in the road; he or she can be led astray into the gang lifestyle, or be motivated to succeed as a contributing member of society.

Like some of you, I've learned some harsh lessons while working gangs. Far too many times I have heard a child brag, "I'm gonna be a gang member." Early in my career, I dismissed those kids as "wanna bes." The mistake I made was not understanding that the "wanna be" is the predecessor of the "gonna be" and will one day be the kid standing at the proverbial fork. When "wanna bes" are dismissed by officers focused on the big arrest, the "wanna bes" take it as a challenge to show officers they are capable of earning their place in the gang. As law enforcement officers, we have an obligation to serve and protect and certainly to prevent the "wanna be" from becoming the "gonna be."

Some gang cops remind me of shooting stars. They build excellent cases and gather incredible intelligence about gang activity, but what happens afterward? Some go on to teach or share their experiences with other officers, but often neglect to teach gang prevention. Others protect their knowledge like it's a precious, powerful secret. Like a shooting star, some fade into the night without reaching their final destination.

I've known a lot of great gang cops who've made a positive impact in law enforcement. I've also known a lot of non-law enforcement people who've made positive impacts in their communities. As gang cops, we need to embody the people who make positive impacts in our communities.

No one keeps track of the number of children saved from gang involvement. There's no database for an almost gang member who later became successful. We usually hear these success stories only as we sit around sharing a beer or two. This part of working gangs is sometimes especially hard for supervisors and managers to grasp, either because they've forgotten how successful prevention can be in combating gangs or because they've decided that what can't be seen on paper doesn't calculate to anything for the department.

Trust me, I enjoy the enforcement part of working gangs too, but community gang prevention is still one of the best ways to combat gangs. Too bad it's a tool that we often fail to use. We make excuses such as "we have a specialized unit to do that touchy-feely stuff" or "I have too many cases to work on right now." Like I said, they're just excuses.[PAGEBREAK]

Photo: Richard Valdemar.

Photo: Richard Valdemar.

Community gang prevention requires networking and educating the public. You must also work with the "gonna bes."

Networking is a powerful tool in combating gangs. If done properly, it will make working gangs easier, by getting you through some of the closed doors we encounter. Networking gets you resources.

When I was a younger gang cop, calling a major police department and asking to speak to someone working gangs was always an uphill battle for me. Having a last name like mine (Sneezy) made it challenging to get people to take me seriously; so I played the endless telephone transfer game. Today, I know who I can call if I need something particular to gangs. If the person I'm calling doesn't know, then they usually refer me to someone else who can help. Gang cops always seem to drop what they are doing in order to help other gang cops.

Just because you can't get a stat out of networking, don't let obstacles such as managers and supervisors discourage you. I've learned tactics from business owners, fellow officers, victims, gang members, and witnesses that enhanced my ability to successfully deal with gang-affected people. Networking goes beyond the walls of the police stations. You have to make yourself available to gather intelligence, learn about useful programs, obtain financing, and identify others who share your motivation.

When you educate the public, you have an opportunity to influence the public into seeing what you are looking for as a gang cop, and help in making a "gonna be" a success. You start developing resources, and the resources are the tools you can use.

The most common way to educate the public is to conduct education through public presentations. The public are your eyes on the streets who are concerned about the same problems you're facing, and they live in the neighborhoods. As always, we have to be the ones to take the first step forward to make progress.

Contacting "gonna bes" is always a great opportunity for prevention. If you keep one kid out of a gang, that's one less kid you or another police officer has to worry about in the future. That's a kid you saved. In law enforcement, we're usually the ones who identify these kids with our own personal police talents. Once these kids are identified, we must take the first step toward prevention. These kids can shift either to the life of a career criminal or a life that leads to success.

There isn't only one way to prevent gang involvement; I like weekly follow-ups. I'll spend hours with a "gonna be," because I know in the long run we'll both benefit from it. Look at it this way. If you influence the kid away from gangs, you've learned what it took for him or her to leave the gang lifestyle. If the kid sways to the career-criminal gang side, then you'll have better intelligence than what you started with. It's a win-win situation.

We may not save every kid from gang involvement, but every kid deserves an opportunity to succeed. Law enforcement officers are the angels of our society, and when even one kid is saved from gang involvement, there are countless others behind and around that kid that we have also prevented from taking the wrong turn at the fork.

Related: Gang Prevention 101: A School Approach