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Policing American Gangs and Gang Members

Summary and Keywords

Gangs have been subjects of extensive empirical research since the 1920s. Scholarly interest in gangs was largely due to gang members’ increased likelihood of engaging in delinquent behavior. Gang members have been involved in criminal activities ranging from drug dealing to theft, property offenses, gun violence, and homicide. In the 1980s, there was nationwide concern about gangs as violent gang-related crimes increased and drew media attention. As a result, important legislation was implemented that made gang membership illegal. These policies were designed to curb gang involvement and de-escalate gang violence. The legislation included civil gang injunctions, the development of gang databases, and the formation and strengthening of gang task force units. Indeed, the policies resulted in an increase of gang unit officers focused on mitigating gang involvement and gang crime. Officer strategies focused on stopping, detaining, and arresting individuals who often fit certain stereotypes. Specifically, officers routinely based gang-related encounters on suspects’ race, age, clothing, gender, and geographic location, focusing mostly on young men of color in economically depressed neighborhoods. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of problems and concerns related to aggressive and biased police behavior surfaced, resulting in questionable outcomes of gang suppression. Research suggests that directed patrols and removing leadership might not be effective. Instead, alternate policies should include policing in conjunction with support from community-based nonprofit organizations and research that accounts for gang members’ experiences of law enforcement strategies.

Keywords: American gangs, street gangs, gang members, policing gangs, gang task force, gang unit officers, female gang members, gang suppression, gang violence, gang delinquency

Gangs and Delinquency

Gangs have been the subjects of extensive empirical research since the 1920s (Thrasher, 1927) through the 1950s and 1960s (Cohen, 1960; Cloward & Ohlin, 1966; Short & Strodtbeck, 1965; Spergel, 1995). In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the proliferation of gangs was seen nationwide, especially in socially disorganized and economically depressed neighborhoods that lacked collective efficacy, resources, and access to social capital (Klein, 1995; Maxson, Egley, Miller, & Klein, 2014). The most recent statistics from the National Gang Center (NGC) estimated that in 2012, 30,700 gangs were operating in the United States, with a majority being located in larger cities, followed by smaller cities and suburban counties (NGC). While there remains considerable debate about how to properly define a gang, scholars largely agree on the following definition: “A street gang is any durable, street-oriented youth group whose involvement in illegal activity is part of its group identity” (Klein & Maxson, 2006, p. 4).

Indeed, gang-involved youth are more delinquent than their non-gang counterparts (Bouchard & Spindler, 2010; Esbensen & Winfree, 1998; Esbensen & Carson, 2012; Miller, 2001). Deviant activities commonly include drug use, drug sales, larceny, petty theft, stealing cars, damaging or destroying property, assault, and property offenses (Klein & Maxson, 2006; Miller, 2001; Peterson et al., 2001; Spergel, 1995). They can also be involved in serious crimes such as gun use and homicide (Miller & Decker, 2001). While this level of violence can be part of gang activities, it is not commonplace (Klein & Maxson, 2006). Though commonly discussed among members, violence is symbolically important, and many qualitative studies have found that gang violence is relatively rare and not well organized (Miller, 2001; Klein & Maxson, 2006). As Klein and Maxson (2006, p. 69) pointed out, “gang members spend much more time hangin’ than bangin’.”

Delinquency is commonly attributed to the gang’s structure and organization, so that the more organized it is, the more likely the gang members are to be involved in crime and victimization (Maxson, Egley, Miller, & Klein, 2014). As Bouchard and Spindler (2010, pp. 929–930) found in their examination of 523 juvenile gang members:

There is clearly something special about membership in a gang that influences delinquency beyond the more general membership in a delinquent group; and the key to understanding this finding lies, in part, in examining the more specific differences between gangs and delinquent groups. An important difference, we suspect, is to be found in the level of organization manifested by gangs compared to less formal delinquent affiliations . . . .[O]rganization matters in understanding why gang members are more criminally active than group offenders [and] . . . some delinquent group members may be as criminally productive as gang members, to the extent that their group is sufficiently organized.

However, gangs are generally not sophisticated, highly organized groups (Decker & Curry, 2002; Klein, 1995; Klein & Maxson, 2006; Spergel, 1995). While sophisticated organization may exist in a small percentage of street gangs, it does not in the majority. Regardless, there was growing national concern about gang delinquency and violence. This resulted in the implementation of legislation focused on gang suppression.

Legislation in Response to Gangs and Gang Violence

Aggressive police interventions had a noticeable increase in the 1960s against Black gangs (see Hagedorn, 2006) and has been on the rise since the mid-1980s, arguably in response to a moral panic about gang-related violence (see Cohen, 1980; Durán, 2008). At the time, legal efforts primarily focused on California, given that it was considered the epicenter of the nation’s mounting gang problem (Katz & Webb, 2006). The state was estimated to have 280 gangs comprised of 26,000 members, many of who were involved in violence and drug trafficking (Spergel & Curry, 1990). Following a plethora of murders and subsequent media reports describing the severity of the problem, the California legislatures declared a state of crisis. Several aggressive strategies were enacted statewide and eventually set the standard for anti-gang strategies implemented nationwide.

In 1988, the State of California passed the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (STEP), a policy that made being in a gang a criminal offense. Using RICO (the Racketeer Influenced and Corruption Organizations Act) as a model, STEP defined gangs as “street terrorist[s]” (Yoshino, 2008) and it was primarily designed to increase prison sentences for offenders recognized as gang members (California Penal Code 186.22). Additionally, the state of California instituted Civil Gang Injunction (CGI) laws, flexible policies that law enforcement could use to combat gangs (Maxson, Hennigan, & Sloane, 2005). These were defined as

a court order that prohibits alleged gang members and their “associates” from doing certain things—usually including association with one another, loitering, and other activities, many of which are already crimes—within a defined area or neighborhood (aclunc.org, 2015).

These laws enabled police to establish “safety zones,” areas where they could legally arrest individuals for non-criminal activity such as breaking curfew, carrying a cell phone, or being associated with “known gang members,” including family members they might live with (RARC, 2012).1

Though the policy was established in the early 1980s, the first gang injunction case was credited to Los Angeles district attorney James Hahn in 1987 (RARC, 2012). From their inception, CGI laws were used moderately, yet in the mid-1990s there was a dramatic increase in their application nationwide, with currently more than 100 police agencies reportedly using them (Klein & Maxson, 2006; Maxson et al., 2005). Implementing a CGI is a lengthy and involved process, which often requires the police to collaborate with prosecutors (Maxson et al., 2005). The size of the gang, area, and defined prohibited behaviors can vary significantly (Maxson et al., 2005). According to Maxson et al. (2005, p. 580):

The number of gang members can range from a handful to hundreds, and the initial string of names is often followed by “and any other members.” The targeted area can be a housing complex, several square blocks, or an entire city, but most often CGIs are spatially based, neighborhood-level interventions intended to disrupt the gang’s routine activities. Prohibited behaviors include illegal activities such as trespass, vandalism, drug selling, and public urination, as well as otherwise legal activities, such as wearing gang colors, displaying hand signs, carrying a pager or signaling passing cars, behaviors associated with drug selling.

There are conflicting findings as to the effectiveness of gang injunctions (Maxson et al., 2005; Grogger, 2002; sfcityattorney.org, 2015). Research has shown that in the first year of implementation, injunctions resulted in a short-term decrease of crimes such as homicide, rape, robbery, and aggravated assaults (Chavez et al., 2004). Additionally, they have been found to be an important aspect of larger strategies to reduce and impact gang activities, especially when combined with community programs like training to improve confidence and interpersonal skills (Chavez et al., 2004). Grogger (2002), for instance, examined data from 14 injunctions imposed in Los Angeles in 14 different areas. He contrasted the crime rates and found that reported violent crimes, especially assault, dropped between 5% and 10% compared to the pre-injunction period.

On the other hand, while Maxson et al. (2005) similarly found that in the short term, injunctions impacted the level of gang presence, reported gang activity, and fear of gangs, these results did not extend to longer time periods. Injunctions were found to have no significant impact on social cohesion, perceptions of neighborhood safety and social disorder, collective efficacy, and police-community relations. However, assessing the effectiveness remains problematic, because there is no single law enforcement strategy, there is limited data, and there have been relatively few attempts at measuring the outcomes of these policies, especially over time (Chavez et al., 2004).

Law enforcement in California and other states also developed gang databases for processing and storing gang intelligence collected (Katz & Webb, 2006). The most recognizable is perhaps CalGang (RARC, 2012), which was implemented in California and was used to collect detailed information about gang members (oag.ca.gov, 2015). Most of the information utilized to populate this database was collected during routine stops or stop and frisks, via photos taken with and without the individual’s consent, and using social media sites like Myspace and Facebook (RARC, 2012). Though gang units nationwide used computer software to store data on gangs, oversight of data processing, input, and maintenance varied significantly from precinct to precinct. Regardless, and perhaps not surprisingly, African American and Latino male youths were the majority of individuals identified and labeled as gang members (Rios, 2011). As of 2012, for example, there were 201,094 individuals in CalGang, of which 94.8% were male, 66% were Latino, and 20% were African American. The highest proportion of individuals was aged 20 to 24.

Another important piece of gang-related legislation was implemented in 2000, when California voters passed Proposition 21. This policy targeted juveniles (14 years and older) and modified the STEP Act to make it easier to prove gang membership (Yoshino, 2008; Chavez et al., 2004) and increase penalties for crimes previously deemed misdemeanors. According to California’s Legislative Analyst Office, Proposition 21:

Changes laws for juveniles and adults who are gang-related offenders, and those who commit violent and serious crimes. Specifically, it (1) Requires more juvenile offenders to be tried in adult court. (2) Requires that certain juvenile offenders be held in local or state correctional facilities. (3) Changes the types of probation available for juvenile felons. (4) Reduces confidentiality protections for juvenile offenders. (5) Increases penalties for gang-related crimes and requires convicted gang members to register with local law enforcement agencies. (6) Increases criminal penalties for certain serious and violent offenses.

This enabled police to add youths to the gang-database for any reason, such as for dressing in a particular way, wearing gang-related colors, or being seen in the company of known gang members. This was particularly dangerous for minority youths because it increased the likelihood they would be tried as a gang member and given a longer sentence if arrested of a crime thereafter (Rios, 2011).

While all the above-mentioned policies and policing strategies were designed to mitigate gang involvement and crime, many of these initiatives were flawed. First, though there are obvious benefits of using gang databases like CalGang, heavily skewed numbers have raised concerns about their controversial use (Barrows & Huff, 2009). Specifically, there are concerns about state-run databases accurately identifying gang members, including individuals erroneously being placed in databases, and omitting important gang-related persons (Barrows & Huff, 2009). Scholars have suggested that gang databases infringe on civil liberates in that inclusion can result in stigmatization and the limiting of economic opportunities (Jacobs, 2009). Also, the actual process of being added to a gang database has raised concerns with due process whereby “police, prison, and jail can label an individual as a gang member without affording him or her any opportunity to contest the label and without notifying the individual that the labeling has occurred” (Jacobs, 2009, p. 707). While databases may be useful and necessary for law enforcement, there remain systemic problems that can contribute to serious, life-altering consequences for those included.

Furthermore, despite the potential benefits of utilizing criminal laws such as STEP, Proposition 21, and CGIs to combat street gangs, law enforcement agencies have faced a number of problems with these tactics (Bjerregaard, 2003). Due to definitional vagueness regarding what constitutes gangs, membership, and members, these laws generally contribute to officers racially profiling minority youths (Bjerregaard, 2003; see also City v. Morales, 1999). Law enforcement targets individuals based on their neighborhood context, ethnic background, and clothing, tattoos, and colors, regardless of the fact that these styles are representative of popular street fashion (Bjerregaard, 2003). This has resulted in the overrepresentation of innocent juveniles who were not gang-involved (Bjerregaard, 2003; Rios, 2011). Gang-suppression tactics are not focused on addressing sources of gang development and gang membership (see Bjerregaard, 2003; Lemmer, Bensinger, & Lurigio, 2008), rendering them unsuccessful at deterring gang-involved youth from engaging in law-breaking and deviant behavior (Maxson, Matsuda, & Hennigan, 2011). Indeed, police might be more effective if restructured to focus on root causes of gang membership and activities like a city’s drug trade (see Lemmer et al., 2008). Despite their ineffectiveness, definitional broadness, and the questionable constitutionality of these statutes, STEP, Civil Gang Injunctions, and Proposition 21 and the other aforementioned policies have survived a series of legal challenges, and many remain in effect today (Bjerregaard, 2003; Chavez et al., 2004; Yoshino, 2008). Moreover, these questionable practices have shaped the way police implement strategies targeted at mitigating gang activity and membership.

Gang Unit Officers

In response to the above-mentioned policies, precincts statewide and nationwide formed or expanded anti-gang units with police dedicated to aggressively monitoring, patrolling, and arresting individuals in high-gang areas (Katz, 2001; Katz & Webb, 2006). For example, San Francisco established its gang unit in 1977 but amped up staff and efforts in the 1980s in response to increasing Latino and African American gang activity (sf-police.org, 2015). By 1999, over 55% of all major American police departments reported establishing a specialized gang unit focused on gang suppression (Katz & Webb, 2006). In 2006, Katz and Webb published a cross-city comparison that examined the gang unit officer, his or her pathways into the gang unit, the training they received prior or during their post, and what they did while on the job. In general, the officers charged with enforcing anti-gang strategies were male, in their 30s, had spent at least seven years on the force, and were ethnically representative of the larger police force in which they operated (see Katz & Webb, 2006, p. 166). Managers selected potential gang unit officers based on several criteria, of which the following four were determined to be the most desirable: self-motivation (i.e., officers who were aggressive in the field and could operate with minimal supervision), prior experience with gang units or gangs, ability to speak a non-English language, and ethnic diversity (Katz & Webb, 2006, p. 168). Counterintuitively, prior investigative experience was not among the most desired qualifications.

Once on the force, each officer received training, though the quality and process varied significantly across precincts (Katz & Webb, 2006). Overall, the researchers found that gang unit officers started their new position with limited preparation on how to police gangs and gang members, as many had minimal experience with gangs prior to joining the special unit. For example, the Albuquerque gang unit had no formal training process, but allocated a predetermined sum of money for each officer to use to attend conferences or classes of his or her choice. In general, gang unit officers felt the best training was obtained while working in the field (Katz & Webb, 2006). Many, though, expressed that there were challenges to overcome, especially with regard to how to perform their new duties. This included their being unclear about the units’ practices and policies and how to conduct investigations (see Katz & Webb, 2006, pp. 177–178).

When on the street, gang unit officers’ time was generally divided between a series of responsibilities (Katz, 2001; see Katz & Webb, 2006, pp. 200–235; Durán, 2008). Among the most important were enforcement, such as directed patrol (i.e., suppression tactics targeted at gang members in minority neighborhoods, public housing complex, and parks) and intelligence gathering (i.e., stopping presumed gang members in order to document those who were in the database, add those who were not, and gather information about their gangs). It was not uncommon for officers to stop minority youths based on appearance (i.e., gender, race, and clothing) or neighborhood context, for minor infractions such as jaywalking, or for perceived suspicious activity (Katz & Webb, 2006; Durán, 2008). Their work demonstrated that gang unit officers might employ racial profiling and stereotyping, noting that officers may target and stop individuals based on race, age, clothing, gender, neighborhood context, and criminal involvement. These topics will be discussed in further detail.

Policing Gang Members Based on Appearance: Race, Age, and Clothing

In order to investigate suspected gang members in accordance with the legislation enacted (i.e., populating the gang database), it was not uncommon for officers to target individuals based on their appearance. In general, gang members are commonly identified as African American, Puerto Rican, or Latino (Esbensen & Carson, 2012; Esbensen & Winfree, 1998). In 2011, the National Gang Center (NGC) estimated that Latino minorities made up 46% of all gang members, followed by 35% African American, 11.5% White, and 7% Other (see also Esbensen & Winfree, 1998; Klein & Maxson, 2006). While ages of gang members vary considerably across groups, between male and female members, and by geographic location, the NGC estimated that in 2011, a majority of the members were over the age of 18. Finally, official statistics suggest that men make up approximately 93% of all gangs (NGC). This is despite evidence that young women can make up anywhere from a third to as many as half of all gang members (Esbensen & Carson, 2012; Esbensen & Winfree, 1998; Miller, 2001). Gang members are also known to have iconic tattoos and typically wear specific brands and styles of clothing (Miller, 1995).

Given this context, it is not surprising that law enforcement has generally focused efforts on ethnic minority male youths wearing clothing, such as baggie pants, certain colors, brands, or hoodies that may be associated with gangs (Durán, 2008; Katz & Webb, 2006; Miller, 1995). This has been described as legitimated profiling where officers are effectively allowed to stop citizens based on their ethnic background, clothing, age, and demographic status, even when they were following the law at the time of the stop (Durán, 2008). For example, Durán’s study (2008) examined the experiences Mexican American youth gang members had with police, and his findings began to unpack the complexity of police interactions. He found that individuals were stopped based on their Latino background, being male, wearing urban attire, and being in certain neighborhoods. This created confusion, feelings of harassment, and anger among the youth. Durán (2008, p. 163) posited that the problem lay with the actual practice of gang enforcement. It resulted in:

(1) racialized profiles, (2) fabricated intelligence, and (3) suppression of marginalized communities. The problem became not that of law . . . but rather the enforcement of laws. Gang units legitimated the social control of people beyond involvement in crime to include perceived criminality.

Furthermore, gang task force officers have been found to employ policies that employ racial profiling; such as such as stop, question, and frisk policies (Carroll & Gonzalez, 2014; Fratello et al., 2013; Spitzer, 1999; Weitzer, 2000). While not specific to gang members, these policies disproportionally focus on minorities—a finding that extends to both adults and juveniles (Stewart, Baumer, Brunson, & Simons, 2009). For example, Spitzer (1999) analyzed New York City police practices to determine how often Whites were stopped when compared to people of color. Spitzer (1999) found that African Americans were 50% of all persons stopped despite being 26% of the city’s population, and Latinos were 33% of the stops yet were 24% of the total population. Whites, in contrast, were 43% of the city’s population but constituted only 13% of the total stops.

Though these initiatives were designed to increase public safety and mitigate crime—including gang crime—they may not have the desired outcome (Spitzer, 1999). More importantly, and to the detriment of police-community relations, police visibility in neighborhoods has been associated with perceptions of police harassment (Brunson, 2007; Gau & Brunson, 2010) and heightened levels of trauma and anxiety among young urban men (Geller et al., 2014). A recent study conducted by Vera Institute of Justice, for example, surveyed 500 New York City residents between the ages of 18 and 25 and found that 44% of the sample had been stopped nine times or more, and less than a third were informed as to the reason. Additionally, 71% reported being frisked, 64% reported being searched, 45% encountered an officer that threatened them, and 46% claimed they experienced police use of physical force.

Indeed, research demonstrates stop and frisk and related practices negatively impact experiences of gang members and contribute to negative attitudes towards police. This is especially clear in studies examining perceptions of procedural justice, perceptions of police legitimacy, and compliance with officers among gang members (Durán, 2008; Novich & Hunt, 2016; Novich & Hunt, 2017). Novich and Hunt (2016) found that male and female drug-dealing gang members reported experiencing disrespect in the form of abusive and degrading language. In more serious encounters, gang members reported being handcuffed too tightly, shoved, pushed, and handled roughly. If the gang members were stopped while drug dealing, it was common for them to report being choked by officers—a behavior gang members found to be extremely aggressive and a violation of personal space (Novich & Hunt, 2016). Novich and Hunt (2017) also found that context of the encounter was significant in establishing perceptions of trust, whereby if gang members were approached for reasons they felt were justified (e.g., caught drug-dealing), they awarded legitimacy to the interaction and the officer. If they felt they were approached under unreasonable conditions (i.e., not criminally involved, sitting at a bus stop, etc.), they, as consistent with previous literature, described feeling stereotyped and harassed (see also Durán, 2008). They also expressed concerns about the unequal application of the law and about being criminalized and routinely targeted based on their neighborhood. These findings are echoed in research examining non-gang members as well (Brunson, 2007; Gau & Brunson, 2010; Fratello et al., 2013).

Overall, these interactions have then contributed to general negative attitudes towards the police—especially since gang members value being treated with respect regardless of their criminal or gang involvement (Durán, 2008; Novich & Hunt, 2016). As Gau and Brunson (2010) concluded, “aggressive order maintenance manifesting in the form of widespread stop-and-frisks can compromise procedural justice and, therefore, undermine police legitimacy” (p. 273). Anti-gang law enforcement strategies, therefore, appear to exacerbate the extent to which they may be subjected to such policing practices—while not accounting for the harm they may have on gang member–police relations.

Policing Gang Members Based on Gender

In addition to race, age, and clothing, current research has also demonstrated that gender impacts policing patterns, including who police stop, what they stop individuals for, and how police behave during face-to-face interactions (Brunson & Miller, 2006; Gibbidon, Higgins, & Potter, 2011; Novich, 2015; Visher, 1983). This extends to policing gang members, where officers are more likely to interact with male gang members than female gang members. Indeed, Novich and Hunt (2017) found that male gang members were stopped twice as often when compared to their female counterparts. Specifically, in their study of 253 male and female gang members, male gang members reported an average of 9.6 involuntary encounters with police per person, while the women reported an average of 4.5 encounters per person. This discrepancy can also be seen when comparing research on female gang participation and official statistics. Contemporary scholarly research indicates that young women are anywhere from a third to as many as half of all gang members (Esbensen & Carson, 2012; Esbensen & Winfree, 1998; Miller, 2001). However, the National Gang Center (NGC), which bases its statistics from police reports, suggests that 93% of all gang members are men. The mismatch of numbers may be a result of law enforcement underestimation of women in gangs but also may be their accounting for male gang members’ increased likelihood to partake in more serious gang-related crime like homicide and gun-involved offenses. As a result, it may be more common for police to come in contact with male gang members.

Along similar lines, Durán (2008) found that the male Mexican gang members were disproportionally the focus of police interventions, despite the presence of female members. This may be because officers act upon the assumption that men are more likely than women to be involved in criminal behavior, especially among urban minority youth (Brunson & Miller, 2006; Durán, 2008). Brunson and Miller’s (2006) study of African American youth, for example, found that race and gender dictated their interactions with police. The young men described the police as “prejudicial” because they felt routinely labeled as suspects regardless of criminal involvement (Brunson & Miller, 2006, p. 541). The women, conversely, described being stopped for less serious infractions like curfew violations (Brunson & Miller, 2006). The women also did not report feeling criminalized like their male counterparts. In some cases, women also reported being less likely than men to experience unfair treatment on the part of police (Gibbidon et al., 2011). This is especially so among women who are seen to be in accordance with middle-class standards (e.g., older, White, and submissive), as police have been found to treat them more chivalrously than African American women (Visher, 1983). It is also important to note that the gender differences may also be related to age, as women tend to exit gangs during adolescence while men tend to remain gang-involved into adulthood.

Policing Gang Members Based on Geographic Location

In addition to gang members’ aesthetics, geographic location also impacts anti-gang policing strategies. Gang control typically takes place in urban neighborhoods that have high concentrations of racial isolation, poverty, crime, and high unemployment (Durán, 2008; Klein & Maxson, 2006), but also in urban settings known for gang activity and violence (Braga, Kennedy, Waring, & Piehl, 2001). Gang unit officers routinely patrol known gang hotspots, which commonly include minority neighborhoods, public housing complexes, and parks (Katz & Webb, 2006). Living in a specific neighborhood, in conjunction with one’s ethnicity and race, therefore increases one’s likelihood of being profiled, stopped, and detained by police (Durán, 2008; Katz & Webb, 2006).

This was particularly the case during a series of nationwide urban-based attempts to mitigate gang membership and crime (Alderden et al., 2011; Braga et al., 2001; Braga & Winship, 2006). These gang-reducing practices included hot spot policing and engaging community organizations in the major metropolitan areas. Among the most famous is Operation CeaseFire, which attempted to reduce violence among Boston’s youth by using a multifaceted deterrent strategy (Braga et al., 2001). Operation CeaseFire promoted a strong deterrent message about the consequences of gang violence and backed the threat by “pulling every lever” legally available (Kennedy, 1996). Specifically, officers attempted to disrupt gang delinquency by serving warrants, mounting federal prosecutions, and changing the supervision requirements for probationers and parolees. Simultaneously, clergy, youth workers, and probation and parole officers provided gang members direct support for anyone wishing to desist (Braga et al., 2001; Braga & Winship, 2006). These efforts likely contributed to a precipitous drop in youth homicides in Boston. The reduction remained stable for the next five years (Braga & Winship, 2006). While CeaseFire efforts were attempted across the nation, there were mixed results in their respective effectiveness. As in Boston, the CeaseFire program in Chicago had a significant and positive effective in reducing gang related violence (Alderden et al., 2011; Skogan, 2008). Other cities, including Baltimore, Minneapolis, and San Francisco, did not yield the same effective results (Braga & Winship, 2006).

In addition to hot spot policing, minority youths are stopped when going into other neighborhoods. In Durán’s (2008) study, for example, police routinely stopped youth who traveled to other parts of their city under the predication that they were “causing problems with rival gangs” (p. 152). To complicate matters further, evidence demonstrates that police behavior shifts depending on the neighborhood in which the police are operating (Kane, 2002). Specifically, research shows that when officers work in areas of perceived heightened danger, which includes high crime and concentrated disadvantage, they are more likely to use greater levels of force (Terrill & Reisig, 2003).

Racially based policing also extends to neighborhoods where police perceive minority youths to be out of place. For example, African Americans and other minorities are more likely to be stopped when in certain types of neighborhoods. Stewart et al. (2009) examined the intersection of neighborhood conditions and racially based policing among African American youths and found that the adolescents reported significantly higher levels of perceived racially based police decision-making in predominantly White neighborhoods that had an increasing African American population. Similarly, Carroll and Gonzalez (2014) examined police contact among drivers and revealed that police routinely stereotyped African American drivers who seemed “out of place.” As a result, African Americans were more likely than Whites to report having an involuntary encounter with law enforcement.

Policing Gang Members Based on Drug Involvement

It is also common for gang members to be involved in drug dealing (Decker & VanWinkle, 1994; Fagan, 1989; Levitt & Venkatesh, 2000), and thus it is likely that they have routine encounters with narcotics officers as well as gang task force officers (Moore & Kleinman, 1989). Of late, the so-called war on drugs has contributed to aggressive targeting of street-level drug offenders, profiling drug traffickers, increasing rates of incarceration, and lengthening sentences for those convicted (Engel, Smith, & Cullen, 2012). It is perhaps not surprising that the number of individuals charged with drug-related offenses has increased substantially in recent decades. In 2007, there were more than 1.8 million drug-related arrests, a number that has more than doubled since 1982 (see BJS, 2006).

Like gang task force police, narcotics officers have also been found to disproportionally target and arrest minorities (Beckett, Nyrop, & Pfingst, 2006; Engel et al., 2012; Kochel, Wilson, & Mastrofski, 2011). This is despite evidence that people of all ethnicities use and sell illegal drugs at similar rates (Alexander, 2010; Jacques & Wright, 2015). According to the 2010 Census, African Americans make up 13.6% of the population but account for nearly 32% of drug arrests in the United States (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2010; Rastogi, Johnson, Hoeffel, & Drewery, 2011). Further, a recent meta-analysis of 40 arrest studies using 23 data sets found with “strong consistency” that race impacts arrest decisions, with minorities more likely to be arrested than White suspects (see Kochel et al., 2011). There may be several reasons that contribute to this outcome, like neighborhood context (Katz & Webb, 2006), differing concentrations of police presence in some areas (Engel et al., 2012), and personal biases (Durán, 2008). Research on street-level drug enforcement has found that three factors may be responsible for an overrepresentation of minorities in drug arrests. First, police have been found to focus on crack cocaine, a drug sold predominantly by African Americans. Second, police efforts generally target African American or ethnically diverse outdoor drugs markets. Finally, the police do not monitor White outdoor drug markets with the same level of attention as the predominately minority outdoor markets (Beckett et al., 2006, Engel et al., 2012).

Indeed, anti-drug law enforcements strategies are extensive. Of particular import is that these policies are often premised on treating drug-dealing gang members as “organized criminal enterprises” (Moore & Kleinman, 1989). This is despite evidence that sales among gang members are seldom well organized (Moore & Kleinman, 1989; see also Decker & Van Winkle, 1994). Regardless, police employ techniques traditionally used against such groups. According to Moore and Kleinman (1989, p. 6), this includes:

  1. (1) the development of informants through criminal prosecutions, payments, and witness protection programs;

  2. (2) heavy reliance on electronic surveillance and long-term undercover investigations; and

  3. (3) the use of special statues that create criminal liabilities for conspiracy, extortion, or engaging in criminal enterprise

Law enforcement routinely conduct “city-wide, street-level drug enforcement” which seeks to disrupt drug dealing by forcing dealers and buyers indoors or having markets move with enough frequency that participants have trouble locating each other (Moore & Kleinman, 1989, p. 8). These tactics primarily incorporate the use of criminal informants whereby involved individuals, whether sellers or buyers, identify (other) dealers for the police to arrest (see Natapoff, 2009). In fact, the use of informants has resulted “in the heaviest concentrations of drug-related arrestees and convicted offenders in the country” (Natapoff, 2009, p. 103). Law enforcement will also attempt covert strategies like buy-and-bust operations where officers disguise themselves in an attempt to complete a transaction with a seller (see also Jacobs, 1996). Officers also arrest individuals following observed transactions (Moore & Kleinman, 1989; Weisburd & Green, 1995) where sellers are witnessed from observation vans, patrol cars, on CCTVs, or from building rooftops. Finally, police also attempt to arrest those who seemingly look intent on purchasing drugs (Moore & Kleinman, 1989).

Neighborhood-level and hot spot crackdowns are another strategy often used by narcotics officers (Moore & Kleinman, 1989; see also Weisburd & Green, 1995). In these efforts, police may leverage resources and systematically “engage business owners and citizens in crime control efforts, to apply pressure to reduce drug and drug-related activity at hot spots through police crackdowns, and to initiate a maintenance program with the assistance of the patrol division of the department” (Weisburd & Green, 1995, p. 713). To do so effectively, police collect information about the physical, social, and criminal aspects of the area, consult historical crime data, and surveil the hot spots. They also establish relationships with local business owners and residents who are invested in the safekeeping of their community (Moore & Kleinman, 1989; Weisburd & Green, 1995). Following this, the police will conduct major “crackdowns” via raiding multiple houses in specific areas. These crackdowns can last several hours and involve numerous officers from different precincts (Weisburd & Green, 1995). Finally, the police seek to maintain their efforts after a crackdown and may do so through surveillances of the hot spot and increasing police presence if needed. The larger hot spot areas can also have foot patrols in place for up to a week after a crackdown (Weisburd & Green, 1995).

Conflict Between Gang Members and Police

It is perhaps not surprising that the policing practices enacted by officers have contributed to a number of problems with gang enforcement. Given the aggressive strategies, several issues with police behavior have surfaced. This includes stereotyping, intimidation, abuse, and violence against gang members. For example, the Los Angeles Police Department developed an anti-gang unit called CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums), which, in some precincts, was found to have developed subcultures that personified the “war on gangs” mentality (Katz & Webb, 2006). The officers in these subcultures began acting on assumptions that all Latino and African Americans were gang members and needed to be removed from the community via any means possible. CRASH officers began ignoring rules, processes, and policies and were ultimately found to have attacked and falsely accused known gang members and regularly choked and punched gang members in order to intimate them (Katz & Webb, 2006). Katz and Webb (2006) suggest that some of these behavioral problems may stem from the gang unit officers themselves and the training or lack thereof they received prior to beginning their work.

Furthermore, recent literature has demonstrated that direct police intervention may have little impact on gang violence or may even increase violence and instability (Hagedorn, 2015; Vargas, 2014). According to Hagedorn (2015), law enforcement may have minimal impact on reducing violence, as it is the gang itself and its goals for expansion, control, and organization that dictate whether violence increases or subsides. Additionally, in some cases, officer corruption and collusion with gang members can bolster gang crime, including drug dealing (Hagedorn, 2015). In other cases, when law enforcement attempts to disrupt gangs by arresting leadership, the results can, counterintuitively, have minimal impact or even contribute to gang crime and violence. For example, Vargas’s (2014) research revealed that in well-established and highly organized gangs, imprisoning leaders does little to impact gang-related violence. Instead, the well-established groups have groomed successors ready and able to assume leadership positions. For other, less organized gangs, removing leadership can create a vacuum of power and lead to turf wars as rivals scramble to assume control over the recently vacated territory (Vargas, 2014). Alternatively, Vargas (2014) suggests that the most significant disruption to gang violence results from nonprofit violence prevention organizations. It is these groups that must provide stability in times of volatility.

The Future of Gang Suppression

It is evident that the topic of policing gangs and gang members is a complex one, needing to account for historical and contemporary policing strategies and legislation as well as the experiences of the gang members as the recipients of these policing efforts. There is little debate that gang members are more delinquent than their non-gang counterparts and that efforts should be in place to mitigate gang involvement and subsequent gang-related crime. While there remains no decidedly “best” way to combat gangs (Fritsch, Caeti, & Taylor, 1999), current strategies employ gang task officers who routinely stop and question gang members and suspected gang members. Gang task officers, as well as narcotics officers, frequently rely on outward aesthetics of the individual, targeting young minority men dressed in urban attire located in disenfranchised communities. While officer behavior is guided by departmental policies and legislation, it has become evident that these practices have not had the desired outcome. Instead, they commonly result in the over-policing of minority communities and send signals of disrespect, distrust, and deep-seated concerns of racial biases (Durán, 2008; Miller, 1995; Novich & Hunt, 2016, 2017).

The future of gang suppression therefore relies in a multi-faceted approach that includes policing but also nonprofit organizations, community workers, and an accounting for nuances of gang members themselves, something seemingly largely omitted from policing efforts (Braga et al., 2001; Hagedorn, 2015; Katz & Webb, 2006; Novich & Hunt, 2016, 2017; Spergel, 1995; Vargas, 2014). For example, gang members value being treated with respect and dignity regardless of whether they are interacted with as a result of their criminal behavior (Novich & Hunt, 2016). As such, practices that employ procedurally just behaviors should be incorporated into policing efforts (Tyler, 2006). There is also emerging research suggesting that how and when gang members are approached impacts their perception of officer trustworthiness (Novich & Hunt, 2017), suggesting that intelligence-gathering and enforcement practices may be doing more harm than good. By including policing strategies that work (e.g., CeaseFire as represented in Boston) and accounting for what resonates best with gang members’ perceptions of law enforcement practices, police officers may ultimately be more effective in reducing gang activity while simultaneously limiting the harm done between gang member and officer.

Further Reading

The interested reader may find additional information on the themes presented in this article in the following publications:

Concerning Anti-Gang Policing Strategies

Barrows, J., & Huff, R. C. (2009). Gangs and public policy: Constructing and deconstructing gang databases. Criminology & Public Policy, 8(4), 675–703.Find this resource:

    Bjerregaard, B. (2003). Antigang legislation and its potential impact: The promises and the pitfalls. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 14(2), 171–192.Find this resource:

      Braga, A. A., Kennedy, D. M., Waring, E. J., & Piehl, A. M. (2001). Problem-oriented policing, deterrence, and youth violence: An evaluation of Boston’s Operation Ceasefire. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 38(3), 195–225.Find this resource:

        Braga, A., & Winship, C. (2006). Partnership, accountability, and innovation: Clarifying Boston’s experience with pulling levers. In D. Weisburd & A. A. Braga (Eds.). Police innovation: Contrasting perspectives (171–187). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

          Fritsch, E. J., Caeti, T. J., & Taylor, R. W. (1999). Gang suppression through saturation patrol, aggressive curfew, and truancy enforcement: A quasi-experimental test of the Dallas anti-gang initiative. Crime & Delinquency, 45(1), 122–139.Find this resource:

            Hennigan, K., & Sloane, D. (2013). Overview of: “Improving civil gang injunctions: How implementation can affect gang dynamics, crime, and violence.” Criminology & Public Policy, 12(1), 7–41.Find this resource:

              Katz, C., & Webb, V. (2006). Policing gangs in America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                Katz, C. M. (2001). The establishment of a police gang unit: An examination of organizational and environmental factors. Criminology, 39(1), 37–74.Find this resource:

                  Klein, M. W., & Maxson, C. (2006). Street gang patterns and policies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                    Lemmer, T., Bensinger, G., & Lurigio, A. (2008). An analysis of police responses to gangs in Chicago. Police Practice and Research, 9(5), 417–430.Find this resource:

                      Maxson, C. L., Hennigan, K. M., & Sloane, D. C. (2005). “It’s getting crazy out there”: Can a civil gang injunction change a community? Criminology & Public Policy, 4(3), 577–605Find this resource:

                        Miller, J. (1995). Struggles over the symbolic: Gang style and the meanings of social control. In J. Ferrell & C. Sanders (Eds.), Cultural criminology (pp. 213–234). Boston: Northeastern University Press.Find this resource:

                          Miller, J. (2001). One of the guys: Girls, gangs, and gender. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                            Spergel, I. A. (1995). The youth gang problem: A community approach. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                              Vargas, R. (2014). Criminal group embeddedness and the adverse effects of arresting a gang’s leader: A comparative case study. Criminology, 52(2), 143–168.Find this resource:

                                Vargas, R. (2016). Wounded city: Violent turf wars in a Chicago barrio. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                  Perspective of Policing from the Gang Member Perspective

                                  Durán, R. (2008). Legitimated oppression: Inner-city Mexican American experiences with police gang enforcement. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 38(2), 143–168.Find this resource:

                                    Miller, J. (2001). One of the guys: Girls, gangs, and gender. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                      Novich, M., & Hunt, G. (2016). “Get off me”: Perceptions of disrespectful police behavior among ethnic minority youth gang members. Drugs: Education, Policy and Prevention, 24(3), 248–255.Find this resource:

                                        Rios, V. M. (2011). Punished: Policing the lives of Black and Latino boys. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

                                          General Overview

                                          Decker, S., Katz, C., & Webb, V. (2014). Understanding the black box of gang organization: Implications for involvement in violent crime, drug sales, and violent victimization. In C. Maxson, A. Egley, J. Miller, & M. Klein (Eds.). The modern gang reader (4th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                            Hagedorn, J. M. (2006). Race not space: A revisionist history of gangs in Chicago. The Journal of African American History, 91(2), 194–208.Find this resource:

                                              Hagedorn, J. M. (2015). The insane Chicago way: The daring plan by Chicago gangs to create a Spanish mafia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

                                                Katz, C., & Webb, V. (2006). Policing gangs in America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                                                  Klein, M. W. (1995). The American street gang: Its nature, prevalence, and control. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                    Klein, M. W., & Maxson, C. (2006). Street gang patterns and policies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                      Maxson, C., Egley, A., Miller, J., & Klein, M. (Eds.). (2014). The modern gang reader (4th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                        Spergel, I. A. (1995). The youth gang problem: A community approach. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Notes:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (1.) It should be noted that as of 2008, the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office instituted an “Opt-Out Process” by which individuals could voluntarily request via petition that they be removed from an enforcement list, either before an injunction has been issued or after a preliminary or permanent injunctions has been issued by the Court (memorandum).