Mark S. Fleisher
Radical culture change instigated by conflict among diverse cultural groups has had adverse social and psychological effects witnessed by the rise of youth gangs. A close look at the processes of gang formation in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City illustrates that rapid changes in core cultural systems had a chilling effect on ethnic groups’ core cultural practices, such as adolescents’ rites of passage to adulthood. In the absence of culturally prescribed, ritual activities, adolescents have not been prepared to assume their culture’s prescribed adult roles. That radical loss in a core cultural tradition has adversely affected adolescents’ behavior. Research in the early decades of the 20th century in Chicago reported that adolescent gang members experienced depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and addictions as consequents of violence clashes between Chicago’s native white population and European immigrants and black migrants. Over the decades of gang research in America and Europe, sociologists and anthropologists have come to agree on cultural elements in theories of gang formation: American and European youth gangs are derivative of cultural clashes, which engender racism and fundamental antagonistic changes in cultural systems’ economic production and social control. Effects of hostile culture change include social discord, unemployment, gang, and violence.
Social network research on adolescent gangs has shown that gangs are not closed social groups limiting gang members’ interpersonal contact to co-group members. Gang and non-group adolescents differ in attributes (sex, age, education), but structural measures of adolescent gang groups and non-groups are similar. Network research has carefully examined gang and non-gang adolescents’ personal networks. A personal network of male and female gang members includes people they know who know them. A personal network’s composition can include a few friends, close friends, and best friends, and numerous others inside a gang group as well as members of other gangs and non-gang members. Personal network relations connect gang adolescents to their families, friends, and neighborhoods, despite gang membership. Gang ethnography describing youth gang members and their families has shown that gang youth have been victims of domestic and intimate partner violence, experience periods of episodic homelessness away their natal and extended kin, as well as fictive families, and suffer adverse mental health consequences.
Street gangs are prevalent throughout the United States. Recently, law enforcement agencies estimated there are approximately 30,000 gangs and 850,000 gang members across the United States. Gang members commit assaults, street-level drug trafficking, robberies, and threats and intimidation. However, they most commonly commit low-level property crime and marijuana use. 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. The presence of gangs and gang-related activity induces fear in the local community and great concern among citizens, impacting the quality of life of neighborhoods and cities. To confront these concerns, law enforcement is often considered the first line of defense. Despite the tenuous relationship between law enforcement and gangs, police officers have special knowledge and access to gang members and at-risk youth, which puts law enforcement in a unique position to reduce juvenile gang violence through prevention, intervention, and suppression efforts.
There are several ways in which law enforcement responds to gang violence. In its efforts to prevent gang violence, law enforcement plays a crucial role in regulating gang activity and in preventing those at risk of joining gangs. Primary prevention is broad in scope as the programs and strategies focus on the entire community. Primary prevention programs, such as the Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) program, target a wide population and attempt to teach youths the skills to resist peer pressure to join a gang. Secondary prevention programs narrow their focus by identifying and reaching out to youths at risk for joining gangs. Secondary prevention programs, such as Los Angeles’s GRYD Secondary Prevention Program, offer psychological and substance abuse counseling, tutoring, and employment training, among other services. Law enforcement can also reduce gang violence through intervention by implementing strategies that provide alternatives to gang membership and strategies that prevent gang activity. Gang alternative programs, such as the Gang Employment Program (GEP), aim to get individuals to leave their gangs, but also provide opportunities to prevent the individual from rejoining the gang. Gang activity prevention strategies, such as the Dallas Anti-Gang Initiative’s enforcement of curfew and truancy laws, focus on specific activities, places, or behaviors associated with gang activity. These strategies typically include special laws, mediation, and situational crime prevention strategies. As a last resort, law enforcement responds to gang violence through suppression strategies. Suppression strategies are deterrence-based strategies. Although the effectiveness of these aforementioned programs varies, law enforcement is better utilized in a prevention capacity rather than an enforcement one. Moreover, law enforcement should not tackle gang violence alone, but in partnership with other community organizations and stakeholders such as Boston’s Operation Ceasefire or Chicago’s Project Safe Neighborhoods. These partnerships with community organizations and visible commitment to combating gang violence through prevention and suppression efforts can build trust and increase police legitimacy in at-risk communities.
Finn-Aage Esbensen and L. Thomas Winfree
The socio-demographic characteristics of gang-involved youth are a focal concern of contemporary gang researchers; policy analysts; politicians; and, in many cases, the general public. A broad overview of gang member characteristics is a critical and natural precursor for any policy response to gangs, a task that has historically included widely used socio-demographic characteristics (e.g., race or ethnicity, age, urban or rural residence, gender, and sex) and various forms of illegal and illicit behavior. Similar lists of individual and collective characteristics such as these have shaped public policy responses to youth gangs in the United States, Western Europe, and indeed around the globe. Furthermore, given the attention paid to “illegal” migration trends at the end of the 21st century’s second decade, policymakers, law enforcement officials, and others often tie immigrant status to gang membership, including immigrants’ alleged involvement in violent forms of delinquency. The following image of street gang members emerges: (a) gangs include girls as well as boys; (b) the sex composition of the gang affects the level of delinquency of gang members; (c) gang members reflect the racial or ethnic composition of the community in which they exist; (d) gang members are not disproportionately members of immigrant groups; (e) youth age in and out of gangs during early- to mid-adolescence; and (f) while in the gang, youth commit significantly more crime than their non-gang peers.