"The speed of the leader is the speed of the gang" (Mary Kay Ash)

    A gang is usually identified as a group with some sense of identity and permanence and some involvement in illegal activities (Esbensen 2000).  Other defining characteristics include being a group of three or more people, perception of distinctness, structural organization, and a common name.  Gangs tend to share colors, signs, signals, jargon, and graffiti.  Gang activity, by itself, is not a crime, but gang-related criminal activity is.  However, since most of the time what gangs do is commit crime, gang activity and criminal activity are usually synonymous.  Gangs become a social problem when their status and/or reputational systems tend to become predominantly based on some type of criminal activity.  By definition, this means that all gang members must come to think that at least some crime is honorable and/or for the benefit of the gang.  This is the motivational factor that distinguishes gang crime (from solitary or partnership crime) -- they come to associate the growing power of their gang with an increasing level of involvement in crime.  Sure, it's possible that a gang exists somewhere which doesn't seek power thru crime,  but this is their inevitable organizational dynamic.  At one time, back in Thrasher's (1927) day, gangs were looked upon by sociologists are relatively harmless play groups, but the contemporary criminological viewpoint is that gangs represent the incubators for more serious behaviors, like organized crime (Hagan 1998) or terrorism (Orvis & Rush 2006).  This is not to say that less harmful "starter" or "embryo" gangs do not exist, which are also called "wannabes," "juniors," or "pee-wees" (Vigil 1993), with their dynamic being more a desire to glorify roughness, obscenity, craziness, and insanity. 

    There are at least three generally accepted points of criminological wisdom about gangs.  One, there is a significant likelihood that gangs will be associated with gun violence, or violence involving firearms; two, much of this violence will be intra-ethnic with rival gangs of the same ethnic group fighting each other in a escalatory cycle of retaliation; and three, gang members are more likely than non-gang criminals to be involved in more serious and violent crimes (Howell & Decker 1999; Decker 1996; Thornberry 1998).  There are many reasons for why people join a gang, but the main ones are protection, enjoyment, respect, money, and because a friend is in a gang.  Researchers do not agree on the most predictive risk factors, and the main driver of gang activity may very well be population migration.  Seeking friendship or romantic adventure may also play a part, especially with the growing phenomenon of girls in gangs.  There are an estimated 80,000 female gang members in the United States, according to the National Crime Prevention Council, and that comprises about 10% of the overall gang population. In male gangs who allow females to join, girls can comprise as much as 25% of the membership. Some female gang members are spies for other gangs. The vast majority of girl membership, however, is as a prostitute or the "sexual property" of another member. Co-ed street gangs and all-girl gangs even prostitute their own female members to make a profit. Getting "sexed-in" is also a common way girls join gangs, although "fighting-in" exists as an alternative way to join. Getting pregnant usually allows a girl to leave the gang, at least for some time. Drug use as well as drug selling is somewhat common among girls in gangs, and this activity is enhanced by their proclivity to be attracted to "straight" guys, or non-gang guys. Yet, their devotion and loyalty to the gang is largely unquestionable because their reasons for joining and staying in are usually very personal, such as revenge for another gang killing a family member.

    Let's focus on the gangs-terrorism connection, as Orvis & Rush (2006) do, in pointing out a past, present, and future connection.  In 1986, some members of El Rukn, a Chicago street gang, were arrested and convicted of terrorism.  They offered to commit bombings and assassinations on U.S. soil for Libyan payment.  El Rukns have also met with terrorist groups in Middle Eastern countries.  In 2002, Jose Padilla, a member of the Latin Kings, another Chicago street gang, was arrested for attempting to detonate a "dirty bomb" in the U.S. on behalf of al-Qaeda.  Knox (2002) surmises that gangs see terrorist groups as more organized, more powerful, and more legitimate.  In other words, gangs want to emulate terrorists because by attaching themselves to the political cause that presumably motivates terrorists, they can appear more legitimate and become more powerful at the same time.  "Playing at terrorism" is the new gang blueprint.  Gangs see terrorism as good "cover" for their criminal activities.  Few are likely to become true believers in the terrorist ideology because, after all, their first loyalty is to the gang.  The primary trajectory of their criminological evolution is more like Hagan (1998) projects -- toward organized crime -- Chicago-style -- "Ya bought protection, ya gots protection."


    There are four basic groups in the general gang model:  (1) potentials, or "could be's," who are usually the youngest of possible members; (2) claimers, associates, or "wanna be's," who dress, act, and walk like members, and participate in gang activities; (3) regular members, who comprise the biggest portion of a gang; and (4) hard core members, who are often protected by regular members, and may or may not have an authority position in the gang, but usually constitute around 5-10% of the gang.  Other member classifications include the threefold typology by Sanders (1994), consisting of (1) hardcore; (2) affiliate; and (3) fringe; and the fourfold typology by Hagedorn (1994) which includes (1) legits, who hope to mature out of gang activity one day; (2) homeboys, who alternate between criminal and conventional lifestyles; (3) dope fiends, who are into gang activity to feed their habit; and (4) new jacks, who see gang activity as a career.  Gang types are usually classified according to one of three leading typologies, as follows:

Three Leading Typologies of Gangs

     First, there is Taylor's (1990) typology of (1) scavenger gangs, who lack goals, purpose, consistent leadership, and tend to prey upon the weak; (2) territorial gangs, who define an exclusive turf and defend it; and (3) corporate gangs, who are the most organized for purposes of illegal money-making ventures.
     Second, there is Huff's (1996) typology of (1) hedonistic gangs, who like to get high and have good times; (2) instrumental gangs, who are primarily involved in property crime and economic gain; and (3) predatory gangs, who are likely to have sophisticated weapons and be involved in robbery, mugging, and other crimes of opportunity. 
     Third, there is Fagan's (1989) typology of: Type 1 gangs, involved only in alcohol and marijuana use; Type 2 gangs, heavily involved in vandalism and drug sales to support their habit; Type 3 gangs, extensively involved in both serious and nonserious crime as well as hard drugs; and Type 4 gangs, extensively involved in both serious and nonserious drug use and crime, with the highest rate of drug sales.   

    It should be added that the kind of gang most typically found in communities which had no established gang problem in the 1980s or 1990s is the "hybrid gang."  This particular type of modern gang often defies attempts to classify it because it seems to be constantly changing in composition and tactics.  As an OJJDP Report on Hybrid/Modern Gangs makes clear, some characteristics of a hybrid gang are as follows:

    Nobody knows the exact number of gangs and gang members in the United States.  In 1999, OJJDP estimated that there were 31,000 gangs with 816,000 members, but other estimates can be found running as high as one and a half million.  The majority of gangs are small, "street" gangs, with membership ranging in size from 6 to 50 members.  So-called girl gangs typically are offshoots of their male counterparts, and constitute no more than 4% of all gangs, although Campbell's (1984) research estimated that females make up about 10% of all gangs according to a sample of four hundred gangs.  Mixed-gender gangs are common, in which some females relish the combat, but most females act as lookouts, weapons carriers, set up rivals for attack, or procure nonmember girls for gang rapes.  According to Thornberry (1998), the typical gang member is an ethnic male between the ages of 12 and 25 years of age, comes from a disorganized social environment, comes from a family which practiced poor family management, has a history of poor school performance accompanied by low educational expectations generally, and is likely to have been recruited into the gang at an early age, also having been long indoctrinated about the attractiveness, comradeship, fun, safety, and protection that gang membership presumably supplies. 


    Since gang crime is mostly street crime, gang crime intelligence analysis can have immediate impact on a police department's daily activities because any patterns uncovered can be used for special operations or to modify patrol deployment.  It has also become customary for crime analysts to be involved in the construction, implementation, and interpretation of citizen surveys in this regard, with such surveys measuring "incivilities" (noncriminal or misdemeanor acts which are perceived as threatening to citizens) and fear of crime (media-driven and irrational, often involving vicarious victimization).  When these survey data are mapped geographically and overlaid with "hot spot" analysis (the traditional police pin mapping of where gang-related calls for service occur), police departments have a tool for tracking shifts in gang crime activity from location to location, LOCATIONAL ANALYSIS being the most common police product.  Most gangs are territorial and adversity-oriented, so an important part of police work is knowing the turfs.  Of course, in some cities like Atlanta, gangs are not all that turf-oriented, but there may still be geographic patterns.  The following is a list of the top cities and counties (in descending order) with the most gang members, and a gang map (discussed below) of the city of Compton, California, which is provided with permission of  It should be noted, as Goldstein (1991) advises, that any focus on Los Angeles gangs does not mean to imply that all gangs are part of the blood-crip "set" or that Los Angeles gangs control all drug distribution in the country.


1. Los Angeles county
2. Los Angeles (city)
3. Chicago
4. New York City
5. Santa Ana (California)
6. Cleveland
7. San Antonio (Texas)
8. Gary (Indiana)
9. Oakland (California)
10. Atlanta (Georgia)
11. Miami-Dade county
12. Little Rock (Arkansas)

    From a larger intelligence viewpoint, there is no substitute for deep background information on the gang members themselves, and no in-depth information is too in-depth.  Some gang members are as young as 10 years of age, and some researchers put the upper range into the 30's.  Most gangs consist of members who belong to the same ethnic group, the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (OMGs) being all-white (see table below). Gangs organize along family, ethnic, and neighborhood lines, and research has shown the best predictor of criminal activity among gangs is the background of individual gang members and their leaders.  Mapping gang crime on a locational basis is the oldest and most traditional way to do gang intelligence work, and has some illustrations of gang maps.


Hell's Angels Formed in San Bernardino during 1947 when a group calling itself the Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington changed it's name to Hell's Angels, which was a name used by fighter pilots during WWII. Active in California, and the East Coast, with international connections.
Outlaws Formed in Chicago during 1959 with chapters throughout the midwest, western New York, western Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, with international connections.
Pagans Founded in Prince George county, Maryland during 1959 with chapters in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New Orleans, with little or no international connections.
Bandidos Founded in Houston, Texas during 1966 with chapters throughout the south and parts of the northwest, with international connections.

    Leadership analysis is another common intelligence activity, and the profiling of gang leaders and members has a history going back to debates in criminology over the terms "sociopath" and "psychopath" (Yablonsky 1959).  Perhaps the most useful academic analysis of gang leadership was provided by Jankowski (1991) who studied thirty-seven gangs, and suggested the important features were structure, leadership, recruitment, initiation rites, role expectations, sanctions, and migration patterns.  The three types of structure Jankowski observed were as follows:

    Fortunately, there is a surplus of Internet information about gangs, their leaders, and rosters available, since many gangs use Internet websites as a kind of "electronic turf" and e-mailing as a form of "electronic graffiti."  Validating, or at least verifying the existence of a gang, can easily be done from harvesting the information on these websites or using computer forensics, which will frequently document the gang's history, colors, symbols, monikers, roster, and more.  Unfortunately, many well-wishing law enforcement types have bought up and are holding the domain names that some gangs would like to use.  Other website domains, such as the one the Crips have been trying to get up and running, are regularly hacked by cybervigilantes.

      The most common supplement to locational analysis is an effort to ENUMERATE or list gang membership and affiliation.  Getting a handle on the size of gang activity is important for validation or predictive purposes.  Gang membership tends to increase and grow in size after wars or riots (the three distinct growth periods of the 20th Century being the 1920s, 1960s, and 1990s).  There are different ways to count the number of "gang-related" people from your incident reports -- by counting the number of people involved in each incident, or by estimating the number of people through an analysis of aggressive graffiti, identifiers, and other "signs of crime." has guides to interpretation of gang graffiti, which can have some warning intelligence value.  Many of the approaches to gang crime intelligence are similar to the techniques of analysis used in narcotics crime investigation.  In fact, a computer program called NARC was developed in 1993 for processing narcotics intelligence, but it soon became apparent that it was ideal for analysis of gang membership (Whitworth 1993).  Perhaps the most well-known computerized database on gangs is GREAT (Gang Reporting, Evaluation, and Tracking), first developed by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in 1989.  Modern police crime reporting programs have overcome most of the problems of how to count "gang-related" incidents.  The types of criminal activity in which gangs are most involved is as follows:


1. Assault on rivals (94%) 8. Motor vehicle theft (67%)
2. Carrying concealed weapons (88%) 9. Assault on students (66%)
3. Larceny-Theft (80%) 10. Burglary (64%)
4. Illegal drug use (76%) 11. Shoplifting (62%)
5. Illegal drug sales (75%) 12. Mugging or simple assault (56%)
6. Selling stolen goods (70%) 13. Credit card theft (46%)
7. Drive-by shootings (68%) 14. Witness intimidation (46%)
Adapted from: Huff, R. (1998). "Comparing the Criminal Behavior of Gangs." NIJ Research in Brief, Oct. 2. USDOJ: BJS.

    Another common way to present gang information is by comparing it to the overall violent crime rate, as the following chart illustrates, taken from Harrell, E. (2005) Violence by Gang Members: 1993-2003 BJS Crime Data Brief, June. USDOJ: BJS, where the effort appears to be an attempt to map the fluctuations or figure out the carrying capacity.


    Police chiefs are in a catch-22 position with documenting gang crime in their community. If they deny its existence (and political leaders almost always want to deny its existence), despite evidence to the contrary, the gang problem grows.  This has been the case in some cities, like Washington D.C. which has long officially denied it has a gang problem.  If they publicly acknowledge the gang problem, this validates the gang leadership and gives them notoriety.  Some communities receive federal funds based on the volume of their gang activity, and this creates an incentive to over-emphasize the gang problem, but communities also have tourism and investment interests, which create an incentive to keep the gang problem under-emphasized.  To be sure, many jurisdictions prefer not to even recognize gang activity or pass ordinances about it. Gangs often thrive on a renegade status bestowed upon them by the adverse publicity of law enforcement crackdowns. Therefore, many jurisdictions prefer to subtly incorporate gang activity indicators into civil abatement statutes.  This involves using court-ordered injunctions to command a responsible party to stop doing something or start doing something, or be held in contempt, similar to nuisance abatement which has the following characteristics:

    Civil abatement measures also include gang injunctions, and rely upon a judge issuing restraining orders against specific members of a gang, effectively suing them.  The identification of gang members can be accomplished from police intelligence or via input by members of the general public, ideally both.  Each gang injunction must define a geographic area where gang activity is prohibited (safe zones).  These measures are very controversial, and the ACLU and Nation of Islam have both taken strong positions that gang injunctions violate civil rights.  Some courts have struck down all or part of these measures as void and vague laws.  Some typical characteristics of gang injunctions include the following:

    Often, what passes for intelligence analysis, in this area, is really intelligence gathering.  It has been estimated that gang crime intelligence specialists spend about 83% of their time gathering and sharing intelligence rather than having any chance to analyze it (Webb & Katz 2003).  Police gang crime units are often pressed into service for timely information, and detectives commonly credit that information with helping them go about their investigations.  The kind of information (not really intelligence) that detectives want out of a gang unit are monikers (gang names), legal names (and aliases), addresses, known associates, photographs, affiliations, and a guide to hand signals, symbols, and alphabet.  Police departments, by tradition and custom, are rarely equipped for any gang crime intelligence products beyond simple investigative aids. 


    The typical police response to a gang problem in most metropolitan areas is surveillance and suppression.  Suppression is a reactive strategy that zeroes in on hard-core offenders to incapacitate them with the most severe criminal sanctions.  Suppression has the effect of keeping a crime problem down to manageable proportions, which isn't exactly the goal of deterrence.  Suppression by omission involves downplaying the problem by manipulating the media.  Repression is a tougher version of suppression that aims to eradicate the problem out of existence, usually through aggressive raids, jump-out units, and crackdowns of various sorts that infringe on civil liberties.  Total repression never works, and frequently backfires.  Prevention is a softer version of suppression accompanied by strong rehabilitation programs, and it is a proactive strategy that attempts to get to the problem before it happens.  Most experts agree that to be effective, suppression must always be accompanied by prevention (Klein 1995).  

    Through adequate forecasting and threat assessment, the intelligence analyst has a role to play in deciding which strategy (suppression, repression, prevention, or a mix of all three) should be followed by the agency.  It is important that such analytic products do NOT sensationalize the gang problem (e.g., "the world as we know it will be overrun by gangs in six years") just as it is important to NOT announce victory (e.g., "the war on gangs has ended; we have won; we no longer have gangs in our community").  The most likely scenario is one in which the agency is trying everything, all strategies at once, in an all-out effort they call zero tolerance which combines a whole host of things such as curfews, saturation patrol, gun buy-backs, street sweeps, surveillance, outreach, and ride-along.  Under such circumstances, a gang intelligence unit would be expected to provide operational support and not be that much involved in strategy or policy like it ought to be.

    With the exception of places like the Chicago Police Department (where about 400 officers are assigned to the city's gang crime intelligence unit), most urban police department gang intelligence units (GIU) are quite small, consisting of a dozen or so close-knit officers, commanded by a lieutenant or sergeant.  By day, they give talks in public forums about the evils of gang life; by night, they engage in surveillance.  Other duties include the review of warrants and itemization/analysis of confiscated property.  Fighting gang crime tends to produce a lot of confiscated items, especially drugs and guns, but sometimes large sums of cash.  Sometimes, useful intelligence work can be accomplished by analysis of confiscated items, and a supply-side strategy can be followed to dry up the gang's material resources.

    One area where a gang intelligence unit (GIU) ought to part company with its operational counterparts is with the identification of less-serious offenders, also called "gang-involved", "at-risk", or "wanabe" youth.  Identifying the serious, hard-core offenders for intensive police action is one thing, and perfectly legal.  Aggressively targeting youth who are only in the early stages of gang membership for anything other than prevention services is quite possibly illegal.  A gang crime intelligence unit (GIU) should never let itself get in the position of becoming a provider of secondary names (targets) after the primary targets have been eliminated.  Secondly, the lessons of LAPD's CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) unit in the Rampart District should warn against letting your gang unit turn into a narcotics unit.  Furthermore, the lesson of NYPD's CAGE (Citywide Anti-Gang Enforcement) unit is that simply arresting gang members does not always lead to a successful prosecution because witness intimidation and obstruction of justice should be expected. 

    Finally, any well thought-out suppression strategy should include some way of tracking or monitoring the hard-core gang members who have been sent away to prison.  New York City's GIU has done this with some success, as have states like Illinois with a working relationship between law enforcement and corrections.  It is entirely possible, and quite likely, that gang leaders will attempt to control the gang's activities from behind penitentiary walls.  For this reason, it is important for police and correctional agencies to work together and establish intelligence sharing.  Many correctional facilities, however, are prohibited from admitting they have a gang problem, and many state prison systems don't allow gang research.  The kind of intelligence analysis that is most useful when making use of prison data is called gang profile analysis, and the National Gang Crime Research Center has some examples at their website.


    The problem-solving approach requires centralization of police functions, as opposed to community-based policing which requires decentralization.  Research is inconclusive on whether centralization or decentralization is better for the police, but almost everyone agrees that the intelligence analysis function works best with centralization.  With a centralized command structure, there is more problem sharing, and with more problem sharing comes problem solving.  At least that's the thinking behind problem-oriented policing, a movement that originated about the same time as community policing (Goldstein 1990) and has commonalities with the broken windows thesis that no disorder or decay, no matter how small, should be overlooked.  Anti-gang initiatives that are driven by the problem-solving model are referred to as using the COPPS (Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving) model since the more comprehensive COPPS program developed from the Problem Oriented Policing (POP) concept.

    Not all gangs are profit-making enterprises, intent on franchising themselves across the country.  Despite different criminological ways to classify gangs, Skolnick et. al (1990) have made a basic distinction between entrepreneurial gangs and cultural gangs.  Cultural gangs, which originate out of local neighborhoods, are far more common than entrepreneurial gangs, despite concerted efforts to make all gangs look entrepreneurial and expansionistic.  At the local level, the fundamental causes of gang formation are racism, unemployment, and a lack of social capital.  Police have limited resources to do anything about these causes, but it is possible to mobilize a community through problem-solving so that the fundamentals are addressed.  Community mobilization typically involves citizens, youth, community groups, and agencies as advisors who help orient police in their gang-control efforts.  Irving Spergel's highly regarded model (Spergel & Curry 1993) recommends community mobilization as well a number of other strategies, including suppression, in what might be called a blended approach.  Problem-solving tries to get at the root causes of crime.  Some typical programs one might see with these strategies include:

    The above are all obviously in need of further research and evaluation before any conclusions can be made about their effectiveness.  However, the general thrust behind such programs is the notion of information sharing.  Police departments often underestimate the value of intelligence based on community sources, such as information gathered from community meetings and "gripe sessions."  A simple content analysis of recorded meetings could yield valuable intelligence.  Non-criminal justice agency personnel often have valuable insights on the gang problem, as do probation, parole, and correctional officials.  All should be involved in the problem-solving strategy, and police departments should do a better job of networking the social service agencies in their community, as the following chart illustrates:



    Coordinating (or interorganizing) an effective social services network in the community creates constant pressure on gangs, and it is this constant pressure which offers the best hope for dealing with youth gangs (Sanders 1994).  The constant pressure hypothesis makes use of research indicating that most gangs have fluid, unstable, and erratic leadership, as well as membership.  Gang leadership tends to come and go, as rivals from inside and outside the gang target them for assassination or revenge.  Members also tend to come and go, as commitment levels rise and fall.  Intra- and inter-gang violence is precipitated by turf and disrespect.  When gang members wear their colors, give their own gang signs, or paint their gang graffiti in another gang's area, this invites a violent response from the home gang.  Some police departments in the 1970's and 80's experimented with "gang summits" where police chiefs acted as diplomats attempting to arrange peace treaties, and the results of such efforts ranged from disastrous to promising.  There is a small segment of the police community who still believe in gang summits, but there are neither handbooks nor guidelines for doing it effectively, other than the promising tactic of creating "neutral zones" for when gang wars erupt.


    Another name for constant pressure is known as the "pulling levers" focused-deterrence strategy.  Pulling levers is a phrase concocted by Operation Ceasefire in Boston during 1995 which produced the "Boston miracle" of dramatically reduced gang violence.  It involves talking directly to gangs, saying explicitly that violence will no longer be tolerated, and that every legally available lever, or option, would be pulled whenever violence occurred (Kennedy 1998).  Gang intelligence came into play, not by producing ready-made "hit lists" of gang members for police to crack down on indiscriminately whenever violence occurred, but by identifying those small number of gang members most responsible for acts of violence, and making their lives miserable through a variety of criminal and civil sanctions.  The strategy requires cooperation from prosecutors and judges, and in the case of some hard-core, chronically violent offenders, the intervention of federal authorities.


    A final note on problem-solving might mention the possibility of using former gang members as staff or consultants in programs.  This approach is sometimes called a gang deactivation program, and is quite controversial.  Law enforcement tends to have some disdain for those without a squeaky-clean background who want to work in law enforcement, but it is indeed possible that valuable contributions could be made by rehabilitated criminals, and that sometimes the redeeming qualities of a gang makes them ideal for doing beneficial community work.  The idea of making police programs more genuine by including ex-clients goes back to Hagedorn (1988) and is a theme reiterated by others (Bursik and Grasmick 1993).  In some inner-city schools, for example, prosocial gang members are used as hall monitors, and in such places, drug sales have reportedly gone down.  In other cities, ex-gang members are employed as outreach workers.  These ideas, and many others, place the intelligence analyst in the role of at least doing organizational development for the police department or rethinking the relationship with stakeholders, clientele, and customers.  It should be evident, in summary, that the role of intelligence in gang crime analysis has always been quite diverse, complex, and ever-changing.  A full understanding of the gang phenomena remains elusive.             

A Photographic History of Gang Life in East L.A.
Hispanic L.A.-based Street Gangs
National Gang Crime Research Center
National Youth Gang Suppression Report
New York City's (GIU) Gang Intelligence Unit
OJJDP Overview on Youth Gangs
Street Gang Dynamics

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