Street Gangs

Lessons from a task force.

News about gangs based in Chicago or Los Angeles dominates the public perception in many ways, says Decker, from their perception of what gangs do, how well organized they are and the definition of a gang itself. But in reality, diversity persists among gangs across the country. These gangs stray from the Chicago and Los Angeles models in their organization and, Decker notes, law enforcement has reported gangs to be less configured around the gang and more about the profits their illegal activities bring in.

Viewpoints differ greatly between local street officers and federal gang experts, he adds. Many times they see different levels of organization. He attributes the divergent perspectives to the types of crimes with which the two groups come into contact. Local law enforcement answers calls with local impact: property damage, assaults and shootings. Meanwhile, he says, federal law enforcement, including prosecution, tends to become engaged "at the very highest level of crime, at the level at which crime — if it is organized — is likely to be the most organized."

Decker says few gangs are really systemized and explains it this way, "When you think nationally, if the average age of a member is 17, 17-year-olds are not particularly well-organized." For average 17-year-olds — high school juniors and seniors — staying on top of studies, part-time jobs and obligations at home provides a challenge. For gang members, most of whom have little education and are predisposed to violent solutions, a sophisticated hierarchy simply isn't possible.

Decker says the problem of prosecution is actually exacerbated by the lack of organization among most street gangs because, despite excellent RICO statutes and organized crime models, RICO statutes can't be used on gangs "because they can't qualify on the elements."

And he points out what studies like McGloin's can accomplish. "A lot of what we learn from problem-solving efforts, scanning, analysis, etc., has to do with what we shouldn't do, and what we shouldn't do is treat all gangs the same because they're not monolithic," he says. "We shouldn't take a vision or perception of what gangs are like and blithely apply it to gangs in a different jurisdiction."

Wrapping it up
Using a combined response as well as partnering with other agencies and universities to both set that response in motion and study its effects are time-honored approaches to criminal justice issues. But can an approach still be considered a success if it proves just the opposite of what it hoped to find?

Absolutely. In fact, experiments that surprise law enforcement and criminologists often prove even more valuable as investigative tools. By attacking the problem from the standpoint of what is assumed and disproving that assumption, agencies can use the information to generate a more appropriate approach.

In the case of the Newark study, the results concur with other street gang research showing the gang model isn't a good fit with RICO. Although that sends law enforcement and prosecutors back to the drawing board, it also gives them a base from which to work.

The goal, after all, isn't to prove or disprove a theory — it's to find ways to define the job that has to be done. And that's where the Newark gang project and similar undertakings can claim success.

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