Gang Intelligence and Surveillance

Here is a hint; one of the best ways to build usable gang intelligence to fight gangs is through surveillance.

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Webster's Dictionary defines intelligence as information concerning an enemy or possible enemy or an area.

Another definition is the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations.

Surveillance is defined as close watch kept over someone or something.

Here is a hint; one of the best ways to build usable gang intelligence to fight gangs is through surveillance.


When I joined the Intelligence Unit of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department it was called Special Investigations (SPI). Yes, spy. SPI once held files or real intelligence on criminal organizations, subversive extremists, motorcycle gangs, prison gangs, and dirty politicians. Los Angeles Sheriff Peter J. Pitches had been an FBI Agent before becoming the L.A. Sheriff. He worked under the FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Unlike most of today's sheriffs and chiefs of police, he actually understood the value of surveillance and intelligence.

Sheriff Pitches built up this intelligence unit and had a representative from the SPI unit brief him personally each week. The SPI Unit bypassed the normal bureaucratic department's ridgid chain of command. In the LASD organizational chart of that day, SPI answered directly to the Sheriff.

After the Vietnam War spying became unpopular with the American culture. At least that's how the media painted the picture. Intelligence units and their valuable files fell under attack from the ACLU and other powerful subversive groups. They attacked these files supposedly to protect "Joe Citizen" from "Big Brother" and his domestic spies. The truth was that your average Joe Citizen's name never really appeared in any of these intelligence files, but lots of crooked politicians' names did.

Lawyers and plaintiffs won restrictive case law decisions against some police intelligence units. State and federal legislators, to protect their own backroom antics, also tried to limit the intelligence and surveillance abilities of the police. State and federal attorney generals' offices ordered restrictions limiting police wire tap and other intelligence gathering programs and mandated the purging of intelligence files.

Local police and sheriffs found maintaining large intelligence units increasingly more difficult. Many cities abdicated their criminal intelligence duties and relied instead on the bureaucratic federal agencies. Local Intelligence units like SPI were gutted or skeletonized.

In my opinion this loss in local police intelligence resulted in the explosive growth of organized criminal gangs on the streets. We were fighting gangs blindfolded by the lack of important intelligence. If those local intelligence units existed today, even international terrorist cells would be more quickly located and identified. The terrorists operating in small and medium cities would stand out to local units and the investigators who would have already been in place.

Utilize Intelligence

Whether you work in "Small Town" U.S.A. or "Mega Metropolis," intelligence is the key to how effectively you can direct your limited resources against gangs. There are many sources for this information; interviews, interrogations, informants, and search warrants are all ways to build your gang intelligence file. I suggest you utilize the best of your current information and set up regular surveillance operations. You should spy.

Static and Active Surveillance

Static surveillance is probably the easiest to use. Commit a couple of people to watch the gang hangouts. Photograph gang members and their vehicles. Look for a neighborhood home or other location that can be used as an observation post. I have used church bell towers, abandoned houses, "cherry picker" cranes, mobile homes, empty project apartments, and vehicles disguised as plumbing trucks and UPS vans. Be creative.

There are two schools of thought in the use of static surveillances; one theory says that this should be a passive monitoring of the group for intelligence gathering only, not as an opportunity to make arrests. Arresting any of the subjects might "burn" the surveillance and possibly give away the observation points, some say.

I prefer the second school of thought, active surveillance. Give the officers in the observation point (OP) a radio and assign a marked police unit to act on the information. If the surveillance team observes something of interest, they can radio to the marked unit to make the vehicle or pedestrian stop several blocks from the observation area. Arrests also produce good intelligence. With care this can be done without giving away the OP.

Electronic Surveillance

Can't afford to tie up three or four officers in a static surveillance? Electronic surveillance is another easy way to build intelligence files. Try a hidden time lapse camera. All you good deer hunters know what I mean. You can buy these digital cameras and set them up to snap photos every half-hour or so. Buy a fake hollow decorative garden rock and mount a camera in it. Set it up during the night and let it go. This can also be done from an unoccupied parked car, or a tree on the parkway. With just a little probable cause you can have a "pole camera" set up on a telephone pole across from gang central.

Electronic surveillance includes wire taps, or "Title III" operations in the federal jargon. There is one place that allows you to monitor gang members without having to write a lengthy wiretap warrant. Most state and federal prisons and county jails usually have systems in place that routinely monitor telephone calls of bad guys. Monitor the telephone calls coming from the gang unit or discipline row because that's where the best calls come from.

Mobile Covert Surveillance Team

If your department can afford the expense and manpower, I suggest a mobile covert seven-person surveillance team. A sergeant and six officers, each with a radio in an individual non-police-looking vehicle, are the basic components of the team.

Unlike what's often depicted in movies or on TV, one or two people cannot sustain a covert surveillance for any length of time. The optimum team would actually have 10 people: enough personnel to cover vacation relief and the ability to break a few officers from the team out for foot surveillance if that is required. Ten officers also provide a good number for their role as an entry team at most locations. But having experience as a team supervisor trying to sell the concept of a 10-officer team to my brass (even in an 8,000-strong department), I suggest starting with a seven-officer team.

However, this seven-officer surveillance team should quickly produce results. I operated in a team like this for 20 years. When SPI investigators didn't have a target for us, gang parole units did, and homicide detectives also regularly utilized our team. Over the years we wound up arresting or having some part in the takedown of almost every major suspect in Los Angeles. This included most of the infamous leaders of the Crips and Bloods, the Mexican Mafia, Aryan Brotherhood, and most of the motorcycle gangs. Add to that the arrests of drug cartel leaders, and serial killers like Richard Ramirez.

The seven-officer team utilized all the previously mentioned tactics plus mobile covert and overt surveillances. Sometimes the most effective surveillance is an obvious one. My team operated in this overt style for several months while working the outgoing mayor of Compton, before he was sentenced to prison, and who was also a Blood gang member.

The mobile surveillance team operates like a small Special Forces team. Its flexibility and ability to customize a response to suit the threat cannot be duplicated in any other team configuration. No detective unit, SWAT team, or special problems team compares to the covert surveillance team concept. The cost in manpower and budget is quickly offset by the damage this team can inflict on the targeted gangs.

Drug Trafficking Organized Crime groups and International Gangs are national and international threats to the very fabric of our society. It is time to utilize your best secret weapons, your 007 types, and your best electronic spying technology against them.

Tags: intel, surveillance, gangs, wire tap, drug trafficking, organized crime

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