The U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics yesterday released data from the first nationwide study of specialized police units dedicated solely to addressing gang activity.
The report details the operations of gang units, including intelligence gathering approaches, investigational tactics, gang suppression techniques, law enforcement agency support work, and gang prevention activities. Other topics addressed in the study are the characteristics of gang unit officers, officer training and gang unit selection requirements, intelligence sharing, and gang unit collaboration with other criminal justice agencies.
The report also provides information on the types of gangs and gang activities handled by gang units, and the characteristics of jurisdictions served by gang units. In 2007, 365 of the nation's large (100 or more sworn officers) police departments and sheriffs' offices had specialized gang units, employing a median of 5 officers per unit and more than 4,300 full-time equivalent sworn officers nationwide.
Most gang units focused more on developing specialized knowledge about area gangs, gang members, and gang activities than on suppression and support functions. Over 60% of gang units spent the greatest percentage of time either gathering gang intelligence (33% of units) or investigating gang activities (32%) in 2007. Nearly all (98%) specialized gang units shared criminal intelligence information with neighboring law enforcement agencies.
Law enforcement officers from communities unaffected by gangs until the 1980s or early 1990s often find themselves scrambling to obtain training relevant to what are called hybrid youth gangs in the 21st century. When gang-related training first became widely available in the early 1990s, it often emphasized historical information, such as the formation of the Los Angeles Crips and Bloods in the late 1960s or the legacy of Chicago-based gangs (the Black Gangster Disciples, Latin Kings, and Vice Lords).
As law enforcement officers learned about the origins of these influential gangs, they sometimes attempted to apply this outdated information in their efforts to deal with hybrid gangs in their jurisdictions. The assumption that new gangs share the characteristics of older gangs can impede law enforcement's attempts to identify and effectively counter local street gangs, and actions based on this assumption often elicit inappropriate responses from the community as a whole. Citizens may react negatively to law enforcement efforts when they sense that gang suppression actions are geared to a more serious gang problem than local gangs appear to present.
Because of uncertainty in reporting on problem groups such as "cliques," "crews," "posses," and other nontraditional collectives that may be hybrid gangs, some police department staff spend an inordinate amount of time trying to precisely categorize local groups according to definitions of traditional gangs.
When training law enforcement groups on investigative issues surrounding drug trafficking or street gangs, instructors must resist the tendency to connect gangs in different cities just because the gangs share a common name. If the groups engage in ongoing criminal activity and alarm community members, law enforcement officers should focus on the criminal activity, regardless of the ideological beliefs or identifiers (i.e., name, symbols, and group colors) of the suspects. This practical approach would circumvent the frustration that results from trying to pigeonhole hybrid gangs into narrow categories and would avoid giving undue attention to gangs that want to be recognized as nationwide crime syndicates.
The expanded presence of gangs is often blamed on the relocation of members from one city to another, which is called gang migration. Some gangs are very transient and conduct their activities on a national basis. However, the sudden appearance of Rollin' 60s Crips graffiti in a public park in rural Iowa, for example, does not necessarily mean that the Los Angeles gang has set up a chapter in the community. Gang names are frequently copied, adopted, or passed on. In most instances, there is little or no real connection between local groups with the same name other than the name itself. Gang migration does occur, however.
According to the National Youth Gang Survey, 18 percent of all youth gang members had migrated from another jurisdiction to the one in which they were residing. Although gang migration is stereotypically attributed to illegal activities such as drug franchising, expansion of criminal enterprises is not the principal driving force behind migration. The most common reasons for migration are social considerations affecting individual gang members, including family relocation to improve the quality of life or to be near relatives and friends.