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Article

Lauren Magee and Chris Melde

Street gangs have been the focus of attention for over a century, largely due to their reputation for involvement in illegal activities, especially violence. Indeed, gangs use this reputation for violence as a means of survival, as they seek to intimidate others in order to protect their members from attacks from rival gangs, and to limit the willingness of community members to cooperate with law enforcement officials. Research on the nature of these groups suggests they thrive in marginalized communities, where there are high rates of poverty, family instability, and limited institutional support. Much of the information on street gangs stems from data collected in the United States, but these groups have been documented across the globe in not insignificant numbers. While gangs certainly differ in their structure and organizational capacity, these groups are routinely associated with a disproportionate involvement in delinquent and criminal acts at the local level. Perhaps most concerning, gangs and gang members are known to be associated with substantially higher rates of interpersonal violence, including homicide, than non-gang-involved persons. From a developmental perspective, even brief periods of gang membership have been found to have negative consequences across the early portion of the life course, including reduced educational attainment, lower income, family instability, and a higher likelihood of arrest and incarceration. Overall, the negative effects gangs have on communities appears to outweigh any of the short-term benefits these groups provide their members.

Article

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.

Article

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.

Article

Haley Bullard and Shannon Reid

Much of the ongoing concern about the presence of gangs and gang members in the community has to do with the association between street gangs and violence. Decades of research on street gangs demonstrates the complexity of the violent perpetration and victimization of gang members. Although the violence attributed to gang members reached its peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s, gang members continue to be disproportionately involved in violence, both as perpetrators and victims. Understanding gang violence requires careful consideration of the overlapping and intersecting relationships between violence and gang identity, victimization, perpetration, gender, and space. Violence plays an important role in the creation and maintenance of gang identity. Research on violence participation by gang members has demonstrated that gang violence can have both symbolic and instrumental purposes, and that this violence helps the gang build a collective identity and makes violence more normative. Despite some continued misconceptions about the role of female gang members and their presence in gangs, women make up a substantial portion of gang members, and any discussion of the relationship between gangs and violence must also consider the impact of gender on violence participation and victimization. Both male and female gang members are impacted by violence, but levels of participation and types of risk can vary by gender. The complex and gendered aspects of gang violence can make the prevention, intervention, and suppression of gang violence difficult tasks for law enforcement and policymakers. There are a range of perspectives on how best to reduce gang violence. Some researchers advocate early prevention programs to keep youth from joining gangs; others focus on ways to pull youth out of gangs at critical moments, such as when they enter emergency services. Other programs and policies are aimed at reducing gang violence that is ongoing in the community. These programs, such as Operation Ceasefire and Project Safe Neighborhoods, have utilized a focused deterrence framework to curb gang violence. All of these programs are aimed at reducing the amount of violence gang members participate in an attempt to minimize the risk of future violent victimization. Research on gang violence continues to grow and includes new avenues of research. The utilization of innovative methodologies, such as social network analysis, and new areas of research, such as examining the impact of social media on gang violence, continue to advance our knowledge of gang violence and its causes, correlates, and impact.

Article

Timothy R. Lauger

Street gangs are, by definition, social groups that contain patterns of interactions between gang members, associates, and other gangs in their social environment. The structure and content of these interaction patterns, or group processes, are essential for both understanding gang life and explaining collective and individual behavior. For example, variations in organizational sophistication, internal cohesion, and individual-level social integration influence the day-to-day experiences of gang members and can affect criminal behavior. Social ties between gang members are also mediums for street socialization and the development and/or transmission of gang culture. As prospective gang members age and become exposed to street life, they gravitate to peers and collectively learn about how to negotiate their social environment. They connect to other gang members and model the gang’s ideals to become accepted by the group. Routine interactions in the gang communicate the nuances of gang culture and explain the group’s expectations for violent behavior. These lessons are reinforced when conflicts with other groups arise and contentious interactions escalate into serious threats or actual violence. Cultural meanings developed in the gang can alter how a member perceives social situations, various social roles (e.g., gender roles), and his or her sense of self. Interactions within the gang develop the gang’s collective identity, which becomes an ideal standard for members to pursue. Gang members perform this idealized notion of “gang member” in public settings, often acting as if they are capable of extreme violence. For some members these performances may be fleeting and largely disconnected from the ideals to which they truly aspire, while others may fully embrace the ideals of the gang. Such variation is contingent on social processes within the gang and how socially integrated an individual is to other members. Researching social processes within gangs provides a wealth of information about how life in the gang influences gang member behavior.

Article

Focused deterrence strategies are increasingly being implemented in the United States to reduce serious violent crime committed by gangs and other criminally-active groups, recurring offending by highly-active individual offenders, and crime and disorder problems generated by overt street-level drug markets. These strategies are framed by an action research model that is common to both problem-oriented policing and public health interventions to reduce violence. Briefly, focused deterrence strategies seek to change offender behavior by understanding underlying crime-producing dynamics and conditions that sustain recurring crime problems and by implementing an appropriately focused blended strategy of law enforcement, community mobilization, and social service actions. Direct communications of increased enforcement risks and the availability of social service assistance to target groups and individuals is a defining characteristic of “pulling levers” strategies. The focused deterrence approach was first pioneered in Boston, Massachusetts and eventually tested in other jurisdictions. The available empirical evidence suggests these strategies generate noteworthy violence reduction impacts and should be part of a broader portfolio of crime reduction strategies available to policy makers and practitioners. While focused deterrence strategies attempt to prevent crime by changing offender perceptions of sanction risk, complementary crime prevention efforts seem to support the crime control efficacy of these programs. These strategies also seek to change offender behavior by mobilizing community action, enhancing procedural justice, and improving police legitimacy. Focused deterrence strategies hold great promise in reducing serious violence while improving strained relationships between minority neighborhoods and the police departments that serve them.

Article

After nearly a hundred years of debate and analysis, the gang concept remains hotly contested within the social sciences. Once thought to be an exclusively American phenomenon, the study of gangs has become increasingly global over the last decade. Countries from every world region have observed the emergence of gangs and gang-like groups. In some places, gangs resemble their American counterparts, while in others they engage not only in petty crime and drug trafficking but in targeted assassinations, corruption of public officials, and racketeering as well. These activities make them less like the delinquent youth groups they were once conceived as and more akin to organized crime. In less stable and violent contexts, gangs have even been incorporated into ethnic militias, rebel groups, and paramilitaries or have taken on a more vigilante ethos by combating violence and providing some semblance of order. The remarkable proliferation of the gang form and the incredible variation in the phenomenon across the globe requires a reassessment of the gang concept. In the limited literature that focuses on the study of gangs cross-nationally, several conceptualizations have been proposed. Some scholars have attempted to separate smaller street gangs from a variety of other related phenomena: prison gangs, drug gangs, and organized crime. They have done so by crafting a more restrictive concept. However, while separating street gangs from other criminal groups may make sense in the American or European context, it applies less well to other parts of the globe where such organizational forms have become thoroughly integrated, thus blurring these traditional conceptual boundaries. At the same time, some scholars have advocated for a conceptual framework that captures the transformative nature of gangs and encompasses any and all types of gangs and gang-like groups. Such an evolutionary framework fails, however, to distinguish between gangs and a huge variety of criminal and political nonstate armed groups that share little in terms of their origins, motivations, or activities. It can be argued that the best conceptualization is a minimal one that incorporates gangs and many gang-like groups but avoids conceptual stretching to include virtually all nonstate armed groups. Ultimately, contemporary scholars of gangs within any national context must be increasingly attentive to the global dimensions of the gang organizational form and the various overlapping and multifaceted relationships they maintain with a variety of other nonstate armed groups.

Article

R.V. Gundur

Prison gangs are often formally referred to as “security threat groups” or “disruptive groups.” Compared to street gangs, they are understudied criminal organizations. As is the case with many organized criminal groups, official definitions of prison gangs tend to be broad, typically defining one as any group of three or more people who engage in disruptive behavior in a carceral setting. Many prison gangs, however, have other, distinct characteristics, such as having formed or matured in adult prisons, being composed primarily of adults, having a clear organizational structure that allows the gang to persist, and having a presence both in and out of prison. Research on prison gangs has been sporadic and focuses primarily, though not exclusively, on the United States. The first studies of inmate life occurred in the 1940s and 1950s, and in prisons that did not have modern incarnations of prison gangs. Until the 1980s, only a few academics described the existence of prison gangs or, their precursor, cliques. The 1980s and early 1990s saw the first studies of prison gangs, notably Camp and Camp’s historical study of prison gangs within the United States from the 1950s to the 1980s and Fong and Buentello’s work that documented the foundation and evolution of prison gangs in the Texas prison system in the 1980s. These studies marked some of the first, and last, significant, systematic studies of prison gangs until the new century. The 21st century brought renewed attention to security threat groups, as scholars from a variety of disciplines, including sociology, criminology, and economics, engaged in the study of prison society and how inmate groups influence it. Some of these scholars introduced new methodologies to the study of prison gangs, thereby significantly increasing the available knowledge on these groups. Research on prison gangs has expanded to consider four broad categories: defining prison gangs and describing their formation and evolution; evaluating prison gangs’ organizational structure and governance in carceral and free settings; assessing the role of prison gangs on reoffending; and gauging how to control prison gangs both in and out of prison.

Article

David C. Brotherton

The majority of studies on youth gangs are in the tradition of positivistic social science. When natural science is taken as the paradigm, a premium is placed on the value neutrality of the observer, the scientific rigor of the methodology, the unpolluted character of the data, and the generalizability of the findings—all with the aim of proving or disproving ideologically free testable hypotheses. In contrast, critical gang studies adopt a different lens that is best suited to the study of subaltern groups whose lifestyles, “habitats,” and characteristics are stigmatized and pathologized by the larger society. Critical gang studies are based on the premise that all social and cultural phenomena emerge from tensions between the agents and interests of those who seek to control everyday life and those who have little option but to resist this relationship of domination. In this way, critical gang studies adopt interpretive, reflexive, holistic, and probing approaches to research, rejecting the penchant for survey-based truth claims and studies whose findings uncritically reflect the race, class, and gendered positions of the investigators. Thus, practitioners of critical gang studies contend that the key to understanding the gang is found in its dialectical relationship between inclusion and exclusion viewed historically and holistically. Therefore, critical gang students create a counter body of knowledge and an alternative methodology to illuminate (over)shadowed spaces of criminalized social action where hope mixes with survival, creativity with accommodation and, resistance with social reproduction. The data on critical gang studies draw from the entire world of gang members, revealing their agency as well as their structured environments, their organizational systems, rites, rituals, performances, ideologies and cultural products. The critical approach places emphasis on the meaning systems of gangs, their changes across time, and the possibilities that lie within their specific subcultural formations. Welcome to critical gang studies!

Article

James A. Densley

This article examines the who, what, where, when, why, and how of gang joining. The question of what youth join when they join gangs speaks to the contested nature of gang definitions and types and the consequences of gang membership, specifically heightened levels of offending and victimization. The type of gang and the obligations of membership influence the joining process. Where youth join gangs, namely, the neighborhood and social context, also impacts individual opportunities and preferences for joining. When youth join gangs is considered in a developmental sense, to include both adolescent and adult onset, in order to account for continuity and change in individual levels of immersion or “embeddedness” in gangs across the life course. Who joins gangs provides a profile of gang membership grounded in the well-documented risk factors for gang membership, but limited by problems of prediction. Why youth join gangs speaks to the push and pull factors for membership, the appeal of gangs, and the selective incentives they offer. Still, motivations for gang membership cannot fully explain selection into gangs, nor can general theories of crime that do not necessarily fit with general knowledge of gangs. How youth join gangs, for example, is more complicated than initiation rites. The mechanisms underlying the selection process can be understood through the lens of signaling theory, with implications for practice.

Article

Vanessa R. Panfil

Recent gang research has explored various dimensions of diversity including sexuality and has provided important insights regarding sexual identity and sexual behavior within the context of youth street gang involvement. Insights include the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning (LGBTQ) gang members such as their prevalence rates, reasons for joining, gang activities, homophobia within youth street gangs, and how gang structure and composition affect their ability to be open about their sexuality within the gang context. These insights were preceded by scholars’ descriptions of the “homosexual activities” of gang members, particularly in mid-20th-century works, but early-21st-century works include empirical research and documentaries that explore the lived experiences of self-identified LGBTQ gang members. Another major area of study explores the ways that young women are subjected to various forms of sexual violence within gangs, partially because female gang members are often viewed as sex objects. Girls may be “sexed in” to a gang, targeted for sexual violence to exact retribution, raped as a tool of control, or coerced into commercial sexual exploitation. Sexual behavior and sexual identity are often linked with gendered processes and expectations for gang members, which similarly factor into our understanding of the youth street gang experience. Other topics of interest in this field include determining the relationships between childhood sexual abuse and later gang involvement; how to better research sexual autonomy and sexual agency (choice) that may become available to young people within their gangs; as well as addressing extensions of sexuality, such as by examining the relationship between pregnancy or parenthood and leaving the gang, focusing on shifts in available time, priorities, and identity.