Never Underestimate a Gang Member

They may seem disorganized, they may act stupid, they may look really young, but they are deadly and cunning as sharks.

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It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle. - Sun Tzu, "The Art of War"

Long ago I chose to be a sheepdog (a warrior), and not just another sheep (a member of the public). I have survived numerous encounters with human wolves, read "criminals," and other predators while protecting the flock.

You also have chosen to protect and serve the flock. Th is is a very just and noble calling, but just because you are one of the "good guys" does not mean that you will prevail against the "bad guys."

Based on my long years in this occupation, my best advice for you is: Never underestimate the bad guy's cunning, skills, abilities and potential for violence, especially when dealing with gang members.

Your mind is your primary defensive weapon. Your brain must be 100-percent "in this game" at all times. Preoccupation with your problems at home, fatigue, and sleep deprivation will put you at a huge combat disadvantage.

The late Col. Jeff Cooper used to describe the states of mental preparedness for combat by using the colors of a traffic signal light: green, amber, and red. Th e color green represents a relaxed state, unprepared to react quickly to go to red, combat mode. Green is the color most sheep (people) live in. As a sheepdog you must never let your mind slip back to green. You must forever live your life in the amber color. In this amber state your mind might be relaxed, but it is prepared to quickly move to the combat red mode.

Nonverbal Indicators

On duty or off duty, think tactically. Be aware of your surroundings and the people around you. And always be on the lookout for signs of predatory conduct.

Predatory gang members often move in a stalking prowl-like manner. They don't just move from point A to point B.

Even when they are driving, they exhibit hunting or predatory movement. For example, their vehicles will slowly lean into the lane, drifting toward the sidewalk slightly, in anticipation as the driver approaches possible victims.

One sunny California morning my partner Dep. Steve Polak and I were working in Compton monitoring an elaborate Crip funeral. Dozens of blue rags flew from the antennas of big dark low-rider sedans as they snaked through the streets on their way to the cemetery. Tension was high because gang retaliations by either side were common even during a funeral, and there was no love for the police and sheriff 's deputies who rode herd on these funeral possessions.

One vehicle purposely lagged behind the long procession and exhibited the slow predatory hunting movement that I described earlier. We made the decision to initiate a traffi c stop on this suspicious black Cadillac.

After observing a couple of minor traffic violations, I closed on the vehicle and activated the light bar to make the stop. The Cadillac pulled to the curb, and I approached the driver, who was dressed in a dark, neat, three-piece suit. Two other gang members sat as passengers in the Cadillac. For my safety I had the driver exit the vehicle.

As he stepped out, I began reciting my customary lines to solicit a pat down search. "You're not carrying any knives, guns, or bombs are you?" I said, preparing to follow with,"...then you don't mind if I pat you down for weapons for my own safety?" But before I could get the second line out of my mouth, I noticed that the well-dressed gang member's eyes widened suddenly, his mouth fell open but no words came out, and his right hand went down to his right front pants pocket.

Not having time to draw my own holstered weapon, I simultaneously yelled "Gun!" and spun him around to reach his pistol before he did. Covered by my partner, I pulled a loaded .38 revolver out of the well-dressed Crip's pocket.

That Crip unintentionally communicated to me that he had a gun in his pocket, as surely as if he spoke it. And that's not unusual.

Gang members often give non-verbal indicators that they are armed. Look for unusual clothing and manners of dress to conceal weapons. Big heavy coats in hot weather, dark clothing, and dramatic gangster attire are sometimes used to intimidate.

Also, look for subtle indicators like gang members who move or walk in an unusual way, favoring one side or one leg. Look for unconscious nervous gestures like touching the concealed weapon for reassurance.

In a recent FBI report titled "Violent Encounters: A Study of Felonious Assaults on Our Nation's Law Enforcement Officers," researchers noted that the victim officers often missed basic clues that the suspects were armed. For example, it notes that "Officers should look for unnatural protrusions or bulges in the waist, back, and crotch areas."[PAGEBREAK]

Think Tactically

Gang members today think tactically, and they practice. This is especially true if they are in custody where they have a lot of time to perfect the skills they need to kill you and other enemies. They learn martial arts skills, ambush techniques, and the use of your lag time in a blitz attack.

They think tactically, so you must think tactically. Every contact could become violent and you have to be prepared to react and know in advance how you will react.

Think possible ambush as you approach gang members. Remember they always have the home fi eld advantage.

Watch your "six" and your partner's back as well, and give yourself an escape route. Th ink about possible cover and concealment as you move. This is not paranoia. This is being tactically smart.

This is staying alive.

Look for subtle differences in the reactions of the gang members themselves to your approach. Not every gang member wants to get involved in assaulting a police officer. If something is up, weaker

gang members will seem unusually nervous as you make contact. They will be scanning the area for escape routes, or they may stare at the ground. These homeboys will remain unusually quiet and will avoid eye contact. Th e predatory gang members involved in planning officer assaults will be more confrontational and will fix their eyes on you.

Even if gang members aren't planning to attack you, when you contact them, they may do so. Th e behavior of a gang member can be very unpredictable. Remember, they may be under the influence of drugs, alcohol, and/or pack or mob mentality. Gang members tend to act differently, more aggressively, when they are in the company of their homeboys.

And don't think that because a gang member is the smallest or youngest-looking guy in the pack that he isn't dangerous. The FBI report noted that the researchers were shocked and "...did not realize how cold blooded the younger generation of offender is."

Older street combat veteran or "veterano" gang members will tell you that "nothing is more dangerous than a 15-year-old gang member with a shotgun." They have no concept of consequences for their actions. Their experience with death is commonly on TV or in a video game.

Finally, believe a gang member's street rep. Beware of gang members who have been nicknamed by their homeboys with monikers like "Killer," "Matone," "Sniper," "Psycho," or "Scarface." They were given those monikers for some reason.

Many gang members "earned their bones" early in their criminal careers and have never been identified in the numerous unsolved drive-by shootings or even murders they were involved in. Among the Hispanic gang members the kids have become "más locos" or "more crazy" and quicker to resort to the kind of violence that was once taboo, even among the gangs.

New Weapons

Not long ago, gang members recognized rules against shooting cops, kids, and the elderly or victimizing people at church, funerals, or in the company of their family members. Now those rules are ignored. In recent years, "Offenders [have] typically displayed no moral or ethical restraints in using firearms," according to the FBI.

In the year 2006, 52 officers were killed by gunfire and only one was stabbed to death. But guns and knives are not the only weapons employed by gang members against the police. If you read the officer-involved shooting scenarios as often as I do, you will note the growing regularity of gang members using cars and trucks as potential lethal weapons against officers. Th is is complicated by the "geniuses" in city and county government that forbid the shooting of suspects in moving vehicles. In 2006, 45 officers were killed in auto accidents, but 15 officers died from being struck by motor vehicles.

Before I retired in 2004, the arson explosives unit reported an alarming increase in the use of pipe bombs and other explosive devices by gang members. Seven such devices were recovered from one location in East Los Angeles alone.

Outlaw motorcycle gang members seem to be the most common builders and users of pipe bombs. However, as the unsophisticated "Trench Coat Mafia" gang in Columbine demonstrated, the information to build these IEDs is available from written material like the "Anarchist Cookbook" and from many other sources on the Internet. Th e devices in Columbine were "gas enhanced" devices that only partially exploded. Had the propane tanks attached to the IEDs properly ruptured, the death and damage would have been much greater.

Twenty years ago it was very rare to recover military explosive devices in gang raids, but today it is not uncommon. My team recovered a kilo block of military C-4 in a PCP lab in the city of Compton a few years ago. Gang members returning from the Middle East will continue to bring back these devices.

In 2002 an informant identified a Vago OMG bomb factory in Norwalk, Calif. Th e raid that followed resulted in the seizure of several explosive devices and homemade silencers. Homeland Security forces even showed up to examine the workshop. Unfortunately, this kind of seizure will be more common in the future.

In the Wolf's Den

They may look like familiar neighborhood kids, almost laughable, stupid, and disorganized to you. But when you confront them in the field you are like a sheepdog in the wolf's den.

Please remember that gangs are more dangerous than most independent criminals because they work against you as a team. They outnumber you. Some member of the group is usually armed, or they have a gun hidden within reach. They have a mob or pack mentality. They are experienced in combat and often killers already.

Watch for distractions. Don't let them surprise you. Don't let them get the tactical advantage.

Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff 's Department in 2004. He has more than 25 years of experience in anti-gang operations and is a noted authority on street and prison gangs and their cultures. He serves on the advisory boards of POLICE Magazine and TREXPO.

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