The Wolf Pack Mentality

Do not underestimate gang members because they are young or small, scrawny wolves. Maybe you have even encountered and dealt with several of them individually in the past. Maybe you know their names and their families. Don't assume that they will hesitate to attack you because you are bigger, better armed and capable of utilizing deadly force.

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As obvious as it might seem, we in law enforcement tend to forget that one of the primary dangers in dealing with criminal gangs is the fact that we are dealing with multiple suspects. In defense of this, not only are we forced to divide our attention among the multiple gang members, but in addition each individual's aggressive criminal tendencies are heightened when they are encountered in their predatory packs.

I am no psychologist or psychiatrist, but the subject that I write about now is derived from my personal experiences growing up in a gang-infested Los Angeles neighborhood, coupled with 33-plus years as a law enforcement officer dealing with some of the most dangerous individuals alone and in their predatory gangs.

In thinking tactically about encountering gangs in the field, it is helpful to use Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's analogy. Most people are like sheep; the people who prey on the flock (gang members) are like wolves, and we in law enforcement who are tasked to protect and serve the sheep are like sheep dogs.

Wolves, lions, hyena and coyotes are not the only animals in nature to rely on numbers to overcome their victims. Even smaller creatures such as rats, bees and ants can swarm and attack anything that might threaten them. They do this even if the creature is much larger, and even though this attack will certainly mean that some of the pack will surely die. Often the swarming attack begins with warning calls and angry noises that seem to further enrage the group. The pack surrounds the victim and cuts off any possibility of escape.

Think about this example in nature with each encounter you have with multiple suspects and gang members in the field. Do not underestimate them because they are young or small, scrawny wolves.  Maybe you have even encountered and dealt with several of them individually in the past. Maybe you know their names and their families. Don't assume that they will hesitate to attack you because you are bigger, better armed and capable of utilizing deadly force. The bear's size and power will not stop a swarm of bees from attacking him, even though many will die in the attack. Do not let them surround you; "watch your six" and look for an emergency exit route.

Don't let pride get the best of you; a little humility will serve you well. Even the best sheep dog can be outflanked and overrun. If you can identify two, three or four of the suspects, think, "Those are the ones I see. How many more are hiding?" When you encounter multiple suspects, start thinking about requesting back-up.

As a patrol officer working gangs in East Los Angeles, my partner Jim Vetrovec and I once responded to City Terrace Park in the Geraghty gang area to back up a county park patrol unit. Late at night, the unit had detained a group of Geraghty gang members in the park at the top of a grassy hill. The encounter began in a non-threatening manner, and the park patrol officers knew most of the gang members. But the gang members, without discernable cause, suddenly surrounded and physically attacked the park patrol officers. We drove across the grass and up the hill and attempted to come to the assistance of the officers. Normally, the sight of an approaching ELA gang unit would have sent the gang members scattering, but not on this night.

Later, over a few beers, the thankful park patrol officers told us that the incident began with one of the smaller, less-aggressive gang members acting "out of character." The gang had been drinking before this encounter but that was "normal" according to the park police. The undersized gang member began yelling "que Rifa la Geraghty Loma" (Roughly, "Geraghty Loma is number one"). This was picked up by other gang members, as they formed a semi-circle around the officers. The south side of the hill ended in a three-story cliff drop to an empty lot below. The officers were trapped. The gang then began barking threats and insults; the undersized gang member suddenly led the attack.

We drove into the park and exited the radio car and began fighting. We pulled gang members off the park patrol officers and fought back to back. Vetrovec and I yelled out the gang members nicknames as we recognized them, but they continued the frenzied attack. We were now four, but outnumbered and surrounded.[PAGEBREAK]

I threw one of the charging gang members back into the crowd, and in the darkness I felt someone trying to grab my holstered revolver. I spun to my right and shielded my weapon. It suddenly occurred to me that somebody might be killed in this altercation, as another punch glanced off my head.

My power-lifter partner Vetrovec lifted a gang member over his head and then tossed him over the cliff. Ahhhhhh! The homeboy screamed as he fell three stories. Vetrovec tossed a second gang member over the cliff and the frenzied attack broke. I don't know if it was this or the multiple radio car headlights and flashing overheads driving through the park towards us that contributed to the turn in the tide of the battle, but the gang members began running away into the darkness in every direction.

Fortunately, the bushes and a soft dirt slope at the cliff bottom broke the three story fall of the gang members, and nobody got seriously hurt. We arrested and booked four or five of the Geraghty gang members who got caught. But it was a call for assistance that we responded to, and the park patrol officers were certainly grateful.

Rather than being an incident that the gang members would complain about, the Geraghty gang would often bring the fight up in later contacts, "Remember when we jumped those park patrol officers? And Vetrovec threw those homeboys off the cliff!" They would joke about the now infamous fight, but they were not joking that night.

Now join me in the Way Back Machine for an incident that occurred to me as a kid (in 1961). While walking home from Bunche Junior High School with my nerd best friend Bernard, a group of African-American gang kids I recognized from Bunche ran up behind us. Although they must have recognized that we were from the same neighborhood, we were not gang members.

They surrounded us. The "leader" wore a single black leather glove and he was a head shorter than the other three, he accused me of calling his brother the "N" word. The others began saying "yeah," "yeah!" and working themselves up for the attack. The one gloved gangster landed the first blow on the left side of my jaw. But this was not my first fight; I grabbed him and punched him hard in the eye (blind wolves don't fight well). Bernard did not fight back; he fell to the ground, so the others concentrated on me. I held onto the one-gloved gangster and took him to the ground. I made the one-gloved gang member pay for every punch I took. I straddled him and pounded his face. A blow from a wooden board and a kick to my left side took me off the gloved gangster, but the four attackers ran away.

Like wolves circling the lambs, both assaults began with a flanking maneuver. The less-than-largest wolf was the instigator. He tried to rally the other wolves with calls and verbal attacks before his initial assault. Both assaults ended when the victims did not go down easily and effectively fought back.

Remember that animal instincts are also working for you, the sheep dog. When you feel uncomfortable, vulnerable and uneasy, when you get that little voice that says, "uh, oh," stop and assess what is making your senses feel that way. The bond that you establish with your partner and the other sheep dogs is also a multiplying factor. Working as a team, your "whole is greater than the sum of its parts." When a team is in sync, they are a greater force than the sum of each one operating individually.

Use your peripheral vision to watch for flanking movements and movements in the shadows. Use your vehicle to create a barrier to thwart flanking movement; try to use street and vehicle lights to get the best illumination in the area. Look for eye contact with the instigator. He will "cock" or tense up just before initiating the attack. Use your voice to back them off and break up their rallying cries before the attack. The initial attack may be a diversion for another more effective attack (such as the attempt to grab my gun).

Gang members get their courage from drugs and booze, but even more so, they feed on a predatory pack mentality. Their demeanor changes; even the timid homeboy can be aggressive and dangerous when under the influence of the mob mentality. He may say and do things he would never do individually. This is another reason why gang accomplices and get away drivers must be charged as well as the gang shooters. Their participation encourages and supports this mob or pack mentality. Many violent crimes would not have been committed if not for the presence and encouragement of the other homeboys.

Sheep dogs recognize wolves and wolf packs; they understand how wolf packs hunt. Sheep dogs avoid being surrounded and call for help if they need it, and wolves recognize that the sheep dog is dangerous to them.

Go get 'em Fido!

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Sergeant (Ret.)
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