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date: 15 November 2018

Policing and Gang Violence Prevention

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Please check back later for the full article.

Street gangs are prevalent throughout the United States. Recent estimates provided by law enforcement agencies note that there are approximately 30,000 gangs and 850,000 gang members across the United States. The most common crimes street gangs commit are assaults, street-level drug trafficking, robberies, and threats and intimidation. Rival gang members or law-abiding citizens are often the targets of these crimes. Other than crime, the influence of gangs can disrupt the socializing power of schools, families, and communities. These institutions help socialize young people to learn and follow the appropriate rules of a law-abiding society. Gangs also have an impact on the quality of life in neighborhoods and cities. The presence of gangs and gang-related activity induces fear in the local community and imposes a great concern for citizens. To confront these concerns, law enforcement is often considered the first line of defense. Despite the relationship between law enforcement and gangs being tenuous, police officers have special knowledge and access to gang members and at-risk youth, which puts law enforcement in a unique position to help prevent gang membership and respond to and mitigate gang violence.

There are several ways in which law enforcement is involved in confronting gang violence. In the effort to prevent gang violence, law enforcement plays a crucial role monitoring and regulating gang activity and preventing those at risk from joining gangs. Law enforcement can reduce gang violence by implementing gang prevention strategies that either increase awareness or directly attempt to prevent individuals from joining gangs. Awareness programs are wide in focus and attempt to teach youths the skills to resist peer pressure to join a gang. Gang membership prevention programs are narrower in focus and look to identify youths with risk factors for joining gangs. Police help refer at-risk youths to programs where they are offered psychological and substance abuse counseling, tutoring, and employment training, among other services. Law enforcement can also reduce gang violence by implementing activity regulation strategies that provide alternatives to gang membership and that either prevent or suppress gang activity. Gang alternative programs look to get individuals to leave their gangs, and they provide opportunities to prevent the individual from rejoining the gang. Gang activity prevention strategies focus on specific activities, places, or behaviors associated with gang activity. These strategies typically include special laws, mediation, and situational crime prevention strategies. Gang activity suppression strategies are deterrence-based strategies. The main difference between prevention and suppression strategies is that prevention strategies try to make committing gang activity more difficult while suppression prioritizes arrests and imprisonment. Although the effectiveness of these programs varies, law enforcement is better utilized in a prevention capacity rather than an enforcement one. Also, law enforcement should not tackle gang violence alone, but in partnership with other community organizations and stakeholders. These partnerships with community organizations, along with a visible commitment to combating gang violence through prevention and suppression efforts, can build trust and increase police legitimacy in at-risk communities.