What Patrol Officers Should Know About Gang Activity

Richard Valdemar says every officer, especially patrol officers, should keep a notebook. With every contact on the street, ask questions and make notes of the answers given. That allows the officer to, in a sense, create a database of gang activity in the community.

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Gangs drive criminal activity in communities across the country and with police facing staffing challenges, tight budgets, and the decline of some specialty units, it is crucial that the average patrol cop knows what he or she is up against since they are on the frontlines each day.

While officers may have varying degrees of knowledge about gangs, at least one spent his entire career becoming a recognized expert on the topic.

Richard Valdemar, who grew up in Compton, CA, served with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for 33 years, mostly as a gang detective, and has also worked with the Arizona Gang Task Force.

Ironically, he grew up in a neighborhood influenced by gangs.

“I was exposed to gang members from grammar school. I never joined a gang, even though that was a tough neighborhood. But being from the neighborhood, the gang kind of accepts you, so I learned a lot,” he says.

“I thought I knew a lot about gangs, until I joined the sheriff's department. That's where my real education started. In 1970 when I first joined, you had to do a few years working in the jail system,” he says. “So I got my education in the county jail on how gangs operate.”

The big thing he learned is that the gangs run the jail and whoever runs the inside also runs the outside.

Valdemar also ran a surveillance team that would follow particularly notorious gang members when they were released from prison and catch them in criminal activities, arrest them, and send them back to prison.

His career trek even led him back to work in the area that included Compton, so like so many other cops he felt like he was serving the community where he was raised.

“Gang work intrigued me. I felt it was the most challenging. Since I was working my own neighborhood, I felt I wanted to be the biggest impact for law and order and safety for the people that lived there. And by far, in those kinds of neighborhoods, 80% of the crime is committed by gang members,” he says. “You could work stolen cars, you could work burglaries, you could work robbery, but if you worked gangs, you work in all of those.”

Gangs Are Everywhere

Valdemar says gangs are found everywhere and they’re not about anybody’s race, culture, or nationality. The veteran gang investigator says people are led into gangs through criminal activity, drugs, and violence – pointing out those activities are found in every town.

“Almost all criminal activity is going to involve some gang somewhere. They not only do the drug dealing themselves, they also tax or extort drug dealers that are in the neighborhoods they control. So, they're going to be involved in one way or another,” Valdemar points out. “And same thing with any kind of illicit activity, human trafficking, stolen cars, all these things, the receiver of stolen property, counterfeiters, they're going to be taxed by the gang members.”

Chat Them Up

Addressing gangs in any community can start with a grass roots approach with the normal patrol officer. The key is information gathering.

“When you drive down the street and you see somebody that you think might be involved in criminal gangs, stop, chat them up, as one of my friends used to say. Talk to him,” suggests Valdemar. “It doesn't have to be a law enforcement crime stop. It can just be a method of gathering information and a feeling from that person.”

When Valdemar was working Operation Safe Streets in Compton, they would stop what they were doing each afternoon when it was time for kids to be dismissed from schools. Officers would simply talk to the kids as they left the school. They visited all levels of schools – high schools, middle schools, and even grammar schools. Even a child who is not in a gang, can be a wealth of information about the area gangs.

They know the gangs’ signs. They know the gangs’ symbols. They know what areas the gangs control. They have to know those things because they have to survive in a gang-infested area, explains Valdemar.

Tip Line

Information can come into a gang unit in several ways and Valdemar’s unit at one point had a call line where people could provide information.

“Many times the informants and the information that we received on a call line came from their parents, their girlfriends, other gang members, who knew that if this person continued in the route they were taking, they would wind up either badly injured or killed,” says Valdemar.

Keep a Notebook

Valdemar says every officer, especially patrol officers, should keep a notebook. With every contact on the street, ask questions and make notes of the answers given. That allows the officer to, in a sense, create a database of gang activity in the community.

That way when one of those students, or other young people, shares with the officer that a certain gang wears black and gold, he makes note of it. Knowledge like that can later aid officers when they make a stop.

Younger gang members can also be a good source of information. Sometimes, they are not yet recognized by authorities as gang members because they have yet to be caught by police for criminal activity.

“Gang members are usually proud of their gang affiliation, especially when they're very young. Those are the most active gang members anyway,” Valdemar points out.

They may not openly tell a cop they are affiliated with a gang, but a street-smart gangs investigator can ask a few questions and soon learn more details.

Use Questions

An officer approaching a young person that they suspect might be in a gang must drive the dialogue, typically opening with broad questions such as, “Hey, who do you hang out with?”

Progressing from there, an officer might ask “Are you a gang member, do you belong to a group?”

“Sometimes they'll be hesitant to answer and you have to build a rapport before you can ask that question,” suggests Valdemar.

Ultimately, you are trying to uncover what their umbrella gang is as well as what specific gang they belong to in the community. You also want to learn the person’s moniker, or street name. All of this information gathered can later aid during investigations.

“Talk about the neighborhood, especially their enemy. You say, ‘Hey, we heard there was a shooting down the street man, you know who did that?’”

They’ll probably not want to give you information about the crime. However, Valdemar knows how to steer the questioning to draw out information.

“You'll say, ‘I bet it was those crazy guys from across the neighborhood,’ then they'll open up. They'll start saying, ‘Yeah, those guys from 18th Street, and they're always trying to come into our neighborhood, and they shoot us up, and they shot up my sister,’ that kind of thing. Now, if you know who the enemy is, you have a good place to go from there to what affiliation they are,” explains Valdemar.

Basically, working gang investigations is truly community policing. Start with the younger kids and work your way up, Valdemar explains. Catch a little fish, so you can catch the next bigger fish. Eventually, he says, that leads police all the way up to the umbrella group that’s controlling the district.

Toned Down

Valdemar, with his decades of experience, says he is hesitant to tell officers to look for any specific thing when it comes to spotting gang members. It can be even more challenging nowadays. He says the average patrol officer at first probably won't even recognize the gang members as they're walking unless they are dressed for a particular event.

“Their dress, their clothing, comes from prison. Their baggy clothes, sagging pants, the shoes, even their haircuts or shaving their heads, all this comes out of the prison system. They have learned that the police now recognize those things and even the general public will recognize those things and therefore they toned it down,” explains Valdemar.

Gang members now many times will wear more subdued clothing and camouflage or code their gang attire. Valdemar uses the example of if you live in the eastern U.S. and you see 15 kids walking around with Los Angeles Dodgers baseball caps, yet you know there are not many Dodgers fans in your community. That is probably a group of kids using the Dodgers apparel or the color blue as a symbol for their gang.

One thing he says officers will notice will be the way gang members may live in poor areas, but have cell phones, wear $200 tennis shoes, and very expensive clothing. That can come both from parents providing money as well as from illegal activities.

“They may be uneducated, but they're not stupid. Some of them could run corporations when they get to the top. So, they're using identity theft, counterfeiting, identity documents. They're extorting local businesses. They're selling drugs outside the community. They're providing security for the cartels. They're doing all these things way above the sophistication that we saw on West Side Story,” Valdemar says.

Working Together

Valdemar says defunding has cut back on gang and drug enforcement units, so it now falls largely on the regular patrol divisions to address gangs in a community. But, he knows how to make that work and it all goes back to communication and working together.

Sometimes agencies don’t talk, but they must.

“You need to talk to and have meetings with the local surrounding agencies,” he says.

Valdemar points out when he worked with the prison gangs unit, they established a regular Thursday meeting and invited all jurisdictions including probation, parole, people from the custody division, bureau of prisons, the feds, and others.

Housing authority police, school police, and hospital police are often overlooked but Valdemar points out how each of these can bring an abundance of information to the table relating to gangs.

“I remember beginning to start conversations with the hospital police, because the wounded in these gang drive-by shootings would wind up in a hospital and guess what, they'd see their rivals in the same hospital and they would go to war there. As a result, the security officers in the hospital became knowledgeable about what gang members look like,” Valdemar says. “So, you need to talk to all these people.

“As a patrol officer, I would encourage these meetings, even if they're informal. Hey, once a week you have coffee with the parole officer or probation officer. You're going to find out a whole lot of information,” elaborates Valdemar.

He suggests talking to somebody who's working juvenile, or the county jail. They will know the signs, symbols, colors, and major players of all the area gangs.

Advances in Technology

For police, technology advanced during Valdemar’s career and since. Officers once had to return to a patrol car to use a radio. Flashlights were large, with short battery life and low output. All of that has changed as well as many other things both old and new.

But as technology has improved for both the general public and police, likewise it has for gangs. However, gang members have the funds to buy the latest and greatest whether it be communications, weapons lights, or more.

Plus, gangs now tap into the power of the internet.

“They know how to use the internet, they cyber bang. Instead of writing on the walls of your community, you may see a decrease in that because they're writing on cyber walls, Facebook, and Instagram. All these different methods they are very good at,” Valdemar explains.

Drones are also already popular with gangs, and again they have the latest tech that is out there. A lot of the drugs smuggled into prisons and jails are now done by gangs using drones for delivery drops. Valdemar says gangs have used drones for that, and likely other illegal activities, for a while now.

Officer Safety

First of all, Valdemar reminds all officers that when they stop someone that is a gang member they need to always realize they are part of a conspiracy and working as a group or a team. Be alert.

“Keep your peripheral vision open because probably there are three or four others around you that you haven't identified yet. In fact, they train in jail on a three-man team. They have the hitman himself, a man they call the layoff man, and a third they call the eye or the getaway driver,” Valdemar says.

When an officer spots someone who is armed or someone who is acting as a lookout, that cop needs to be alert and watch for the others.

“They rarely go out by themselves. They're going to have a group and that group mentality also encourages them to be more aggressive, a pack mentality,” he adds.

Then also there may be an experience difference between cops and gang members when it comes to being in a gunfight.

“These guys are armed to the teeth. Gang members actually practice more than we do in law enforcement. They've actually been in a gunfight. Sometimes they've been wounded,” says Valdemar. “They know how they're going to react, and they know what to do.”



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