Street Gangs

Lessons from a task force.


Task forces are nothing new to criminal justice. They've existed on every level of law enforcement and academics for decades, and have been used to pursue criminal cases ranging from organized crime to serial killers.

Formed as a coalition of differing perspectives, task forces focus manpower and resources on a common goal. Sometimes, the results are measured in convictions. Other times, results can better be tallied in take-away knowledge.

And almost always there's something to be learned from the combined efforts, even if the outcome is unexpected or doesn't come up with the anticipated answers.

Street gangs and interventions: One case study
With street gangs spreading from urban areas to Middle America, everyone's looking for lasting solutions. Fighting gang-related crime with traditional methods is a lot like putting out a forest fire with a measuring cup — something's being done, but in the long run it's a futile gesture. And to make it even worse, fighting the spread of gangs and their violence doesn't play well with a one-size-fits-all solution. The devil is in the differences.

Since each gang operates autonomously few prevention and intervention techniques have worked across the board. It's understandable the law enforcement community seeks solutions, while academics and social scientists want to study the process.

One important gang task force-related study took place at Rutgers University in connection with a partnership between Rutgers, the Newark (New Jersey) Police Department and several other agencies.

A study of the process, conducted by Dr. Jean McGloin (now at the University of Maryland) in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Policing, took an in-depth look at the Greater Newark Safer Cities Initiative (GNSCI) and the task force that later grew from it.

In her study, McGloin points to other research that has identified certain characteristics of gangs, their adherents and the ultimate effects they have on individuals who live around them. One finding includes that gang membership evolves over time and, as an individual becomes more immersed in the gang, a corresponding rise in his criminal culpability occurs.

Where gangs are concerned, McGloin notes, appropriate problem analysis is key to effective deterrent/enforcement action. She says failure to analyze the problem when adopting a strategy "may result in a futile, even harmful, response plan. For example, one approach in Nevada relied on the incorrect notion that local gangs were similar to those in Los Angeles. It is no surprise, therefore, that it was ineffective."

Once past the group's reportedly fractious history, McGloin says participants worked together to manage the "most at-risk people with the goal of reducing their violent behavior and, in truth, the overall violence in Newark."

The study's findings
In 2003, the gang problem evolved into an even larger concern to law enforcement engaged in the GNSCI. Homicides in Newark were on the upswing and law enforcement officers believed gangs were at the root of the issue.

The GNSCI decided to use its own framework to study the up-tick in violent crime and concluded that since perceived gang issues overflowed its borders into other towns, they would form a new organization within the GNCSI to cover all interests. Thus, the New Jersey Gang Task Force (NJGTF) was born.

Using the Boston Gun Project as a model, the NJGTF soon faced several problems. One major stumbling block was the lack of uniformity of the gang intelligence amassed by different agencies. McGloin characterized the problem as three-fold: (a) the university researchers compiling the database for the project did not have ready access to the intelligence, (b) participating agencies not only used different approaches to recording the information, but the differences made it difficult to integrate the data and (c) old data was rarely purged or updated. McGloin notes the reluctance of law enforcement to share information and documented the progress of the project from the researchers' vantage point.

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