Youth Gangs: A National Problem Evading Easy Solutions

How to deal with the scourge?  Experts say first acknowledge the existence of gangs in your community, then recognize that police enforcement efforts are but one part of the answer.

How to deal with the scourge?  Experts say first acknowledge the existence of gangs in your community, then recognize that police enforcement efforts are but one part of the answer.

While most experts acknowl­edge that gangs are present in every jurisdiction in Ameri­ca, almost every state has different laws pertaining to gangs, and some have dif­ferent definitions of what actually con­stitutes a gang.

As of December, 1999, 26 states had gang-related definitions ranging from "street gangs," to "gangs," to "criminal street gangs," to "organized gangs."

Thirteen states had miscellaneous gang legislation, including Florida's "Street Terrorism Enforcement and Pre­vention Act of 1990," that was enacted due to "a mounting crisis caused by criminal street gangs whose members threaten and terrorize peaceful citizens and commit a multitude of crimes."

As each state struggles with its own ability to deal with the emerging and growing problem of gang violence, there has been no uniform, nationwide policy to assist communities that are either just beginning to face this problem or have become overwhelmed by it.

In the past few years, there has been a growing effort to involve law enforce­ment officials in a nationwide campaign to both exchange information and find ways to deal with gang problems in local communities.

James C. Howell, an adjunct re­searcher with the Institute for Intergovernmental Research for the National Youth Gang Center, in Tallahassee, Fla., has reported that gang crimes are in­creasing with more violent offenses, more serious injuries and the use of more lethal weapons. "Gang participation, drug trafficking, and violence occur to­gether," he wrote, adding, "Because we lack a clear understanding of why and how youth gangs form, preventing their formation is problematic.

"Gangs emerge, grow, dissolve and disappear for reasons that are poorly un­derstood. This lack of knowledge im­pedes efforts to prevent gang emergence, disrupt existing gangs and divert youth from them. Future youth gang research must address how gangs form, how ex­isting gangs can be disrupted and how youth can be diverted from joining gangs," he wrote.

In a 1998 study commissioned by the Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, C. Ronald Huff agreed: "Gang members are much more likely than non-gang members to possess pow­erful and highly lethal weapons. The criminal behavior committed by gang members is extensive and significantly exceeds that committed by comparable at-risk but non-gang youths."

These findings certainly do not sur­prise police departments that have ac­knowledged gang problems in their communities. But according to Del. Wes Daily, Jr., president of the National Al­liance of Gang Investigators Associa­tion, Inc., there are two types of police departments that now exist across the country.

"The difference is major," he explained. "There are those that look at the problem and say OK let's go get them, and those that say I don't see it."

In a 1997 statement before the Sen­ate Committee on the Judiciary of the United States Senate, Steven R. Wiley, from the Federal Bureau of Investiga­tions, stated, "Two of the basic obsta­cles in addressing gang activity in com­munities around the nation is the absence of a universal definition for gangs and the difficulty in document­ing the nature and extent of gang-relat­ed criminal activity.

"While some communities acknowl­edge difficulties in dealing with the problem, they fail to concede that they have a gang problem until the gangs be­come firmly entrenched."

Daily said his organization is one of the few that reaches out nationwide. It consists of 16 individual gang associa­tions and nine federal agencies, includ­ing The Bureau of Justice Assistance, The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, The Department of Justice, The Federal Bureau of Investigations, The Federal Bureau of Prisons, The National Youth Gang Center, The Na­tional Drug Intelligence Center, The Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention, and The Office of National Drug Control.

Daily added that the members of the local groups are "cops that we work with. Some represent departments, but we are not about departments; we are about men and women - professionals that come together who recognize the problem.

"So, if a department is in denial, a law enforcement officer can still do his job. He still knows what to look for. They have the gang information they need- the graffiti, tattoos, tagging, colors ­and they can begin to do lawful arrests, based on that information."

Tackling the gang problem is a diffi­cult and often complicated undertaking.

The U.S. Department of Justice, Bu­reau of Justice Assistance in May 1998, released "A Practical Guide to Address­ing Community Gang Problems." In that publication, it concludes: "No universal strategy works to address all gang prob­lems. The complexity of today's gangs suggests the need for a comprehensive, multifaceted effort that targets the rea­sons youth join gangs. Such an effort may involve three programmatic ap­proaches: develop strategies to discour­age gang membership; provide avenues for youth to drop out of gangs; and em­power communities to solve problems associated with gangs through collaboration with law enforcement, parents, schools, youths, businesses, religious and social service organizations, local government officials, and other commu­nity groups in a comprehensive, systematic approach."

The study adds, "The diversity in gang types and in causes of gang formation and membership involves a broad range of so­cial, political, family, educational, health, and other community factors. Such diversity suggests that preven­tion, intervention, and suppression activities should be designed to accommodate individual communities' unique characteristics, needs, gang populations, and specific gang-related harm. No universal strategy works to ad­dress all gang problems."

A Region Responds

In Nassau County, N.Y., like most jurisdictions across the country, the gang problem began slowly and many elected officials were reluctant to even admit to the presence of gangs. After numerous incidents, the Nassau County Police Department, in 1994, assigned a detective to monitor and gather gang in­telligence. Then, in May 1998, as it be­came more apparent that a gang pres­ence had taken hold in the area, an assistant chief was appointed by the county executive to lead what was de­scribed as a "gang intervention partner­ship."

The police department also assigned detectives to become part of a special group that gathered intelligence on gangs. Information then began to be ex­changed within the department, but not on a formal, regulated basis. The intelli­gence gathered continued to show an in­crease in the number of gangs and vio­lent activities, a trend that is not unusual in an area once gangs take hold.

 It did indicate an immediate need for further actions.

"The initial incidents were either gang members committing quality-of-life crimes or acts of violence, involving the same gang," Nassau County First Precinct Sgt. John Carney told POLICE. The first precinct in the county contained some of the more concentrated areas of gang crimes.

As a result, the Problem Oriented Policing (POP) Unit began some of their own initiatives, including contact­ing the local schools and beginning pro­grams with them. "We wanted them to know that just because they were inside a school, it was no safe haven. The schools talk to the police and the police talk to the schools," said Off. Mike Mal­oney, the gang coordinator for the precinct.

(It is interesting to note, that while the officers reported a great deal of co­operation with the school in their precinct, other precincts and jurisdic­tions on Long Island have also reported that schools have become fortresses and will not cooperate in any way with law enforcement. Often they do not even report crimes on their campus to the police.)

Within the first precinct, a trend was beginning to emerge that signaled a need for greater attention.

"A year ago we saw that the local groups were starting to follow the phi­losophy of the Bloods and the Crips. It became in vogue to take the national gang activities from the West Coast. They now took sides, one with the Crips and the others with several factions of the Bloods," said Sgt Carney.

The migration of these gangs was predictable. "New York City always had the Bloods and we had the Mara Salvatrucha (MS). Now we see Bloods and they see MS," said Officer Maloney.

There was also migration within the county. "A year ago we could say some com­munities had no gang activity at all. We can't say that anymore," Sgt. Carney said.

And so, in April 2000, a pilot program was formalized for the first precinct.

Pilot Program's Basics

Its foundation lay in the operational and community-based strategies already undertaken by aggressive officers who saw a problem and set out to do some­thing about it.

The programs, called the "Gang and Gun Suppression Initiative," contained three components: intelligence, opera­tions and school-community interac­tions.

The intelligence component consist­ed mainly of assessment and dissemina­tion of gang information by the POP unit gang coordinator who reviewed all case reports, arrests and field interviews and collated it with information re­ceived from the precinct crime analysis and the detective squad. He also served as a liaison with other jurisdictions and agencies.

A geo-analysis based on the NasStat model, consisting of locations of sus­pected gang incidents, shootings, gun arrests, suspected gang houses and res­idences of suspected gang members, pinpointed the target areas for the gang and gun suppression initiative.

The operations component included training of all police officers and super­visors, officer safety courses, informa­tion sharing, "zero-tolerance" target areas, field interviews, at Tests in gang re­lated incidents, investigation of all graf­fiti, intense patrols of schools, especially known gang recruitment areas, and in­tense patrols of parks. Desk officers would also be specially trained, be more aware of gang areas and number of offi­cers on patrol in those areas. A specially trained gang unit was also initiated.

According to Insp. Anthony Rocco, "Collecting and analyzing data in gang ­related harm-specific categories, such as gang arrests, gun arrests, assault and other criminal incidents, using the first precinct NasStat model; examining tar­get area calls for service; monitoring the presence of graffiti; and surveys of com­munity opinions and perceived levels of fear can give a picture as to the viability of actions taken."

As Nassau County, like hundreds of police departments throughout the coun­try, continues to struggle to control their growing gang problem, The USDOJ Of­fice of Justice Programs recently re­leased its 1999 Juvenile Offenders and Victims National Report. It concludes "gang problems now affect more juris­dictions than before, including rural and suburban areas. Information about gangs in the U.S. has increased markedly, but forming an accurate national picture re­mains difficult."

They explain that it is difficult to form a clear statistical picture of youth gangs for a variety of reasons, including the fact that estimating the volume of gang crimes is difficult because some jurisdic­tions do not keep separate statistics for gang-related crimes and some do for only certain kinds of incidents. They also con­firm that the definition of "gang crime" varies from place-to-place, concluding that in some places it is member-defined, while in others it is motive-defined.

The Challenge Ahead

As jurisdictions continue - or even begin - to deal with gang problems, often gang members attempt to stay ahead of law enforcement by not show­ing their colors or flashing their signs. Many, when arrested, will not admit to gang membership. Identifying gang members will become more difficult, and potentially more dangerous for po­lice officers.

In some cases, it appears they have their own media campaign, often touting that they are not "gangs" but organiza­tions that help their youth. The media then aids in glamorizing these gang members, without the background or knowledge to realize the crimes and vi­olence these members commit.

It is important to note that the first step in dealing with gangs is the acknowl­edgement of their presence in the com­munity. Then, law enforcement must let it be known that it is not just a police problem; it is a community problem.

Gangs can take over a neighborhood, or they can be controlled. While there are many obstacles and barriers to effectively controlling them, with ac­ceptance of the problem, and research and determination to control it, a solu­tion can be found.

Shelly Feuer Domash is a free-lance writer based in New York and a long­time, regular contributor to POLICE. Her most recent article for us was "Shift Happenings," in April '00, a discussion of creative human resource deployment ideas in principle and practice.


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