Lost Opportunities

There was a time when gang officers were making real progress toward restraining the growth of gangs. Unfortunately, these officers were undercut by budgetary constraints, their own administrators, the whims of politicians, and ironically their own success.

Most people in America today will tell you that gang activity is their number one crime concern. Gangs are no longer just a big city problem; they now operate in the smallest of towns nationwide. And despite official statistics that say gang crime is on the decline, gangs remain a growing cancer in our society.

But it didn't have to be this way. There was a time when gang officers were making real progress toward restraining the growth of gangs. Unfortunately, these officers were undercut by budgetary constraints, their own administrators, the whims of politicians, and ironically their own success.

In the late 1990s, a noticeable decline in gang activity occurred nationally. In response much of the funding for gang programs was redirected, resulting in the decommissioning or downsizing of gang units as officers were transferred.

Gang units were also decimated a few years later when 9/11 caused every major law enforcement agency to dedicate resources to terrorism response. Unable to add staffing, agencies quietly began reassigning gang unit personnel to anti-terrorism duties.

These agencies justified the elimination or downsizing of their gang units by claiming they had achieved victory in the struggle against gangs. That "victory" was, in many cases, really nothing more than illusion built on statistical manipulation and other smoke and mirror tricks.

By 2005 gang violence surged, approaching the record levels of the 1990s. In some jurisdictions officialdom had once more prematurely decreed the defeat of gangs, only to discover that like any malignant life form gangs are very resilient and difficult to eliminate.

Word Games

To justify the transfer of personnel from gang units and responsibility for gang management to other officers, various agencies began to redefine what constituted a gang and gang crime as well as who was classified as a gang member. This allowed agencies to de-emphasize the actual gang problem.

Definitions of what is or is not a gang crime and who is or is not a gang member have been changed to yield different statistical results. And this game is easy because there is no real national definition of "gang" or "gang crime."

Definitions are critical to anti-gang operations. What a department decides to count as a gang incident will have not only political ramifications within the community, but may very well affect the success or failure of the gang program.

Incomplete Reporting

Unfortunately, the criteria for defining gang crime are very complex. Gang crime goes beyond what has become commonly referred to as "gang motivated" crime.

"Gang motivated" is a term used in a style of reporting that accounts for only those crimes committed by gang members wherein the gang as an entity profits. It is basically gang vs. gang assaults that account for most "gang motivated" crimes. Most gang crime against non-gang members is seldom tallied under this system.

The absurdity of this style of reporting is that it assumes gang-motivated crimes are the only crimes gang members are capable of committing. To really track gang crime, the gang's activity must be measured by all of the crimes committed by its members. Gangs are not top-down paramilitary organizations with leaders that dictate all of their actions. The gang as an entity does not commit crime, its members do.

This is why most law enforcement agencies have opted to use the style of reporting referred to as "gang related." In general, any incident involving a gang member as suspect or victim, particularly if the subject is a victim due to his gang affiliation, is counted using this style of reporting. This provides for a consistent and complete report on gang member-involved crime, and it minimizes subjective decision-making by officials.

But politicians don't like to use the gang-related style of reporting because the gang-motivated concept yields a sense of accomplishment. They can also cut back on spending in the affected area and boast of their accomplishments, which does nothing to prevent the gangs from doing their thing, which is to terrorize their communities.

And gang activity does not necessarily cease with the prosecution and incarceration of the offender. So proper identification is important for jail and prison officials so they can take steps to ensure the safety of the inmate and others in the inmate population. The standard gang accounting system within the corrections system is based on security threat groups, not necessarily gangs, which may or may not qualify as an STG. Therefore the system does not always agree with those used by law enforcement agencies. Correct counting of gang members is about decreasing the number of toe tags handed out in morgues inside jails and prisons and in the community.

As this debate continues to be fought among activists and politicians within our legislatures and on the streets, the only victors remain the "bad guys," and unfortunately, there is little light at the end of that very long tunnel.[PAGEBREAK]

Number Games

To further convince the public that the authorities are winning the war on gang crime, some departments have initiated critique sessions of subordinate units and their commanders by executive command staff, emulating the New York Police Department's CompStat (computer statistics). Ideally, the purpose of CompStat is to identify high crime areas by examining crime statistics, officer levels, command decisions, and other factors that could contribute to criminal activity. The department executives can then, after examination and deliberation, bring resources to bear in an effort to assist the local command in alleviating the problem.

Unfortunately, in some agencies executives have become sidetracked from the initial purpose of CompStat and have used the proceedings to publicly castigate and ridicule unit commanders. Once they are subjected to or witness such treatment, many unit commanders bend statistics and reclassify criminal activity in order to meet their numbers.

With regard to gang-related criminal activity, CompStat manipulation has resulted in a skewed and unrealistic decline of gang crime and allowed for diverting necessary resources away from gang enforcement. But the public that lives in gang-infested areas is not fooled and claims of declining gang activity have led to a credibility gap between what police officials are saying and the experience of people on the street.

Some departments used fudged CompStat numbers to cut their gang units. Hence without needed personnel to input names and update information about gang members in gang files, the gang count numbers have artificially continued to decline particularly in those databases that have automated purge systems. In such databases, a certain amount of activity is required for subjects to remain active. Unfortunately, much of the inactivity triggering these purges is based simply on a lack of intelligence gathering due to fewer resources being allocated to gang units. Many gang officers have complained that they have stacks-crates in some cases-of data to be entered into the files but simply do not have the time or resources to do so.

No Funding, No Peace

One of the most crucial problems facing local governments as they attempt to curb gang activity, particularly given the current economic disaster, is obtaining funding. Traditionally, law enforcement gang units are formed by "borrowing" officers from other divisions within the department. Thus when cuts are necessary, the gang units are among the first to go.

Federal and state funding for law enforcement anti-gang units or prevention and intervention projects is also subject to the whims of political processes and it has few advocates. This necessitates funding by local governments already burdened with budget shortfalls and myriad other demands.

Local citizens don't want to absorb the tax hit to fund anti-gang efforts. In Los Angeles, recent attempts to raise taxes to fund anti-gang programs have failed. Some of these failures arise out of the fact that most middle class taxpayers are not witness to gang-related crime except for those incidents portrayed in the news.

When there are gang crime incidents that capture the attention of taxpayers, politicians pander to voters' momentary concerns with placating legislative ploys and fiery speeches, but there is little follow-up or continued interest after the media event. Consequently, meaningful local gang programming is sidetracked.

State and federal funding for gang issues is spotty and inconsistent due to the shifting winds of political agendas. The lack of consistency and continuity of federal assistance projects gives local governments pause when considering cooperation. Local governments must be in the long-range mode of gang control to maintain community stability and support, where typically federal law enforcement agencies tend to be focused on particular targeted aspects of a case and are not geared for long-term commitment. When the targeted issue is resolved, they move on to new targets, leaving a void in continued operations that the locals must absorb.[PAGEBREAK]

Another problem with federal commitment is that different administrations have different priorities. A new administration will appoint new agency heads and charge them with new directions. Many times this leads to the redirection of labor resources and priorities, leaving local law enforcement to fend for itself in trying to salvage the ongoing program.

In the last few years, the FBI has implemented the Safe Streets Task Forces, which has been beneficial to local law enforcement and in most cases has established stability in the working relationship between federal and local law enforcement. The gang problem, however, is of such magnitude that with limited federal funding, the available agents are simply overwhelmed by the problem and must limit their combined task forces to specific targets rather than the hordes of other gangs operating in the greater metropolitan area.

Climate of Acceptance

Lack of congressional leadership, as well as absent leadership in local political entities, has also had devastating effects on law enforcement efforts to eradicate or limit the criminal activity of gangs. This is easily seen by the rise in the illegal immigrant gang populations.

The establishment of local "sanctuary" policies that shelter illegal immigrants contrary to national laws provides a climate of acceptance for criminal gangs. Many of these gangs have far-reaching involvement with Mexican and Central American drug cartels. And there is mounting evidence that these ties are bringing cartel violence across the Southwestern border into the heartland of America.

Many of the major cities that have offered sanctuary to undocumented immigrants refuse to or simply don't attempt to count this population. Some even prohibit local law enforcement from documenting the immigration status of a gang member.

Because of such policies, there is no definitive method for determining the extent of illegal immigrant involvement in gangs. In California, an admittedly unscientific and informal survey was conducted through a combined effort of established gang investigators' associations. The results showed an estimated 20 percent of the Hispanic gang population is comprised of illegal immigrants. This "best guess" estimate is based on the data accumulated from intelligence gathering by trained personnel and includes certain presumptions, among those being that most illegal immigrant criminal gang members are of Hispanic origin and that local gang investigators know which gangs are made up of primarily illegal immigrants.

Such stats should not be used to infer that all of the undocumented immigrants arriving across our borders are criminals or engage in criminal activity. After all, the California gang investigators' survey reveals that 80 percent of the gang crime is committed by U.S. citizens. However, it does indicate that there is a significant problem with the illegal immigrant gang member.

Far too many of these gang members who have been raised and schooled in extreme gang violence in their homelands bring that approach to the streets of America. Statistics show that overall violent crime is down; however, this particular brand of violence is growing. News media reports say that Phoenix has become the kidnapping capital of the nation and almost all of these crimes are attributable to Mexican and Central American criminal gang or cartel activity.

Legislative Paralysis

Federal and state legislators seem to be locked in a deadly struggle of ideology regarding gang enforcement. This struggle allows people to die in senseless gang violence while politicians argue over the minutiae of unrelated issues and neither side budges from its ideological stances. What gets passed is usually neutral, "feel good" legislation that has little or no practical value in the battle against gangs. Activists scream "racism" when get-tough methods of gang enforcement and interdiction are proposed. And such charges prevent our leaders from practically explaining what needs to be done to calm the violence. Elected officials are terrified of being called racist.

"Feel good" political responses from politicians serve to mollify members of the general public, most of whom have no concept as to the inner workings or deadly purpose of street gangs. However, this innocuous type of feel-good legislation is designed to placate the citizenry without having really addressed the problem and its inherent complications.

Political rhetoric surrounding violent gangs is loud and prolific particularly after a heinous gang-related crime, yet strangely quiet soon after the television cameras are gone. Very little is ever legislated that impacts the daily activity of gang members.

Fighting Back

All of this means that communities cannot wait for legislators to address the gang plague. To react in a timely and responsible manner requires a lot of preparation such as identifying the extent of the problem and appropriate resources needed to address the problem. Once that is done the involved agencies need to begin acquiring and funding resources, training personnel, and fielding a task force from law enforcement and community prevention and intervention programs.

None of this can be done unilaterally by law enforcement. There needs to be involvement from all parties: community representatives, law enforcement, schools, corrections, probation, and parole. Generally speaking, the law enforcement entity is the obvious organizer of the task force approach as they usually have the paramilitary leadership to pull such a force together and the contacts to make it work. Funding such task forces should be a priority, and they should be accorded the longevity necessary to continue to work toward a true management of the problem. We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past or fail to act. 

Wes McBride served more than 35 years with the L.A. County Sheriff's Department retiring as a sergeant in the gang unit.

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