Put Full Service Gang Units to Work

To combat the gang problem, use the components of prevention, suppression and intervention.

To combat the gang problem, use the components of prevention, suppression and intervention.

Recently I was talking to Sgt. Wes McBride, a 34-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's De­partment, who has worked street gangs for the past 27 years (see Police, "In the Hood," June, 2000), when he coined a term that stuck with me: "Full ­Service Gang Unit." He explained that when a person is working with gang mem­bers, that person should understand the gang ethic, the customs and practices. This allows the person to build a rapport with gang members. Once the rapport is built, dealings with gang members will be easier and communication develops.

McBride's premise is that "full-ser­vice gang units" are needed to truly im­pact street gang activity. Suppression programs, or as they are sometimes called, "gang enforcement," are a much-needed component to the gang equation. McBride said that when a gang member commits a crime, the gang unit should arrest him. At the same time, if a gang member comes to the unit and says, "I want out of the gang," the same unit should be able to say, "Here is a program for you." The same gang unit should also be involved in prevention programs.

I know many of you think this sounds like a lot of work and would require a sig­nificantly larger gang unit. You are probably thinking about resources and costs for such a fairy tale type of program. I know, because that's how I felt when the prover­bial "light bulb" went on.


There is no need to re-invent the wheel. As 1 have written before (POLlCE, "In the Hood," October, 1998), collaborative pro­grams are good for many reasons, partly because the costs are shared, partly be­cause participants WANT to work to­gether, partly be­cause there is a common goal and mainly because it improves the quali­ty of life for many people.

Think about this for a minute, all the necessary ingredients for a full-service gang

unit already exist. There are currently many programs that are aimed at de­creasing, preventing and minimizing the impact of street gangs. They all work in­dependently of each other. Why not de­sign a program where they work together - forming a full-service gang unit? Similar strategies work extremely well in the California-based TARGET gang suppression units.

The unit can still arrest gang members and put them in jail when called for. But the unit could also provide assistance to those gang members who WANT to get out, help with prevention programs at the school level and cultivate community in­volvement. This does not all have to be done by the police.

The issue is not to design new pro­grams, but to coordinate the efforts of those in existence, using current re­sources. A collaborative would mean that all members would have the same goal, but would work toward it together from different perspectives. A program manager could help coordinate re­sources.

Tailor-Made for Success

The neat thing about a program like this is that it could be regionalized by city or county. You should know by now that all street gangs share certain charac­teristics, but many practices may be re­gionalized, depending on what part of the country the gang is from.

So what exactly am I talking about?

Here is an example of a full-service gang unit - an FSG Unit:

  • Suppression Component:

This would involve a collaborative be¬≠tween police, probation and prosecution, targeting the most active gang members and gang leaders. Intensive probation su¬≠pervision, vertical prosecution and ag¬≠gressive (not brutal) enforcement, aimed at making the community safer for all would be important factors. I would also recommend adding parole agents to this component. Parole agents can give a suppression unit added flexibility when dealing with parolees. Courts and corrections would also assist as they are doing now.  The entire criminal justice system would continue their efforts to decrease violent gang crime.

Intervention Component:

Father Greg Boyle, who runs the De­lores Mission in one of the toughest Los Angeles neighborhoods is respect­ed by many gang members. He be­lieves that many gang members have no hope and are sometimes unable to accept who they are.

Gang members who WANT out could contact any member of an FSG Unit. A referral should immediately be given to a program manager, like Father Greg Boyle, to a school-based interven­tion program manager, or to an Ameri­ca's Promise program manager. The key would be immediate action, not: ''1'll take your name and telephone number and someone will call you back."

You have to understand that many programs are trying to force change on gang members. This leads to little suc­cess. There is always resistance to forced change. When a gang member comes to you and says, "I want to change," that is a totally different scenario and should be acted on immediately.

The goals of intervention should in­clude giving the gang member the op­tion of finishing high school or obtain­ing a GED. He or she should also have the option of tattoo removal. Gang-re­lated tattoos can be used against ex-­gang members. Additionally, the gang member should be given the option of obtaining gainful employment. Jobs can give hope to gang members. Hope is a fundamental ingredient for success. Father Boyle has proved this with his Homeboy Industries program, where the motto is "Jobs not Jail"

Along with employment should be legal assistance. Small things, like traf­fic tickets and driver's licenses, which turn out to be major things in field con­tacts, should be adjudicated. Compli­ance with the law is paramount. If all is in order, one has nothing to fear because there is nothing to hide. Along with this type of assistance, the option should be given to attend classes on parenting, conflict resolution, job interview, money management, etc. Substance abuse programs as well as health care should also be made available.

A gang member should have an as signed program assistant, one who could guide the recipient through the program and document the progress. If current estimates are good, the cost would be somewhere between $10,000 to $15,000 per year per individual. The current cost to house someone in jail is between $25,000 and $30,000 per year. The savings alone could fund the program.

 Police can drive with lights and siren for a legal emergency, fire trucks run with lights and sirens for a fire emergency, doctors and nurses at hospitals yell, "Stat!" because of a medical emergency. Getting out of a gang is a social emergency and should be handled accordingly.

 Prevention Component:

Young children should be given the tools to handle the pressures of living in a gang neighborhood or to avoid gang membership. Conflict resolution and peer counseling are a start. Programs should start in the first grade.

We all know most of the crime com­mitted by juveniles occurs between the hours of 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. This component of the program should in­clude after-school services, such as mon­itored recreation and library access. Church halls could function in the same manner. Volunteer adults and gang members in the FSG Unit program could mentor and watch over the kids at no cost to the school or church.

What is wrong with community busi­ness mentoring or student volunteer pro­grams? How about student mentoring programs where older students help ed­ucate younger students. Organizations like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Civil Air Patrol can all help.

The term COP these days usually means Community Oriented Policing. I think about Community Oriented Prose­cution, Community Oriented Probation and Community Oriented Parole, too.

Patience and Commitment Required

The issues here are time and coopera­tion. This kind of program will take a few years to get off the ground and a few more before results are seen. To succeed, the program will need commitment by the participants. Agency rivalries and biases will have to be set aside, as a spirit of cooperation will be needed.

There would be no need for special names for such a unit, which could simply be called the "FSG Unit" from such-and such county, borough or state. Understanding gang behavior could help modify existing programs and customize them to be more effective. Hopefully, if started now, in the year 2010, the busiest part of the FSG Unit would be the intervention component- not the suppression side. Imagine the impact a unit like this could have on your community. Be Safe!

Al Valdez is an investigator with the OrangeCounty (Calif.) District Attorney's Office and author of the book, Gangs.


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