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Deterring Gangs from Your Neighborhood Turf

Coast to coast, crime prevention and government work to curb gang-related crime.

Yakima, Washington: “Innocent 6 year old girl shot outside home during possible gang shooting” (KAPP TV)

Washington, DC: “Police: Gang member killed for trying to quit MS-13” (The Washington Examiner)

Marion, South Carolina: “Two churches defaced with gang graffiti” (CarolinaLive)

Long gone are the Jets and Sharks of Hollywood lore. The headlines above—just three of hundreds from this past July alone—speak volumes about gangs and society. Gang-related crime and violence has evolved over the years in America, while no community is “immune” to the emergence of gangs. Most communities have no reported gang problem. According to the National Gang Center’s 2009 National Youth Gang Survey, an estimated 28,100 gangs with 731,000 members are active in the United States.

No longer focused solely on battling local rivals, some gangs have involvement in international drug cartels, prostitution and human trafficking, and other illicit activities. Yet, even homegrown groups threaten public safety and quality of life, with gun violence, vandalism, and other gang-related crimes on the rise in some jurisdictions.

Experts agree that gang suppression requires a multi-pronged approach in order to succeed. The critical first step is education—a dynamic, two-way process by which information filters to and from city leaders, law enforcement officers, crime prevention groups, and individuals. By learning to recognize the signs of gang involvement—which can be surprisingly subtle—and knowing what gangs operate locally, who their members are, and what motivates members to join, communities can leverage resources to develop and enhance programs designed to reduce gang activity.

What’s Their Sign?

…[A]ll of us—parents, educators, community leaders, elected officials, law enforcement—need constant education about gangs and gang trends. Gangs are forever changing—we need to keep up.

—Linda Schmidt, FBI Community Outreach Specialist and Gang Prevention Expert

As the U.S. Department of Justice explains, “Gangs are not static entities; they are fluid and dynamic. Membership, leadership, loyalties, and names change constantly. Different gangs may have different rites of passage, ways of flagging themselves, or methods for gaining recognition.” Keeping abreast of these changes is a never-ending task for law enforcement.

Common gang identifiers include types or colors of clothing (e.g., Bloods red, Crips blue), hand signs (i.e., “stacking”), tattoos, graffiti, and even preferred weapon types. However, physical appearances are not always a clear identifier of current gang affiliation.

According to the National Council to Prevent Delinquency, about 10 percent of graffiti—the often believed to be the most publically visible sign of gang presence—is the work of gang members. Graffiti Hurts, a program developed by Keep America Beautiful, Inc., explains that gangs use graffiti to mark territory, offer drugs or contraband for sale, list members, and send warnings to rivals. Usually coded, gang graffiti may include letters, symbols, or numbers known only to group members and law enforcement. Cleaning up graffiti costs the nation an estimated $139 million annually. If you happen to see graffiti or even people in the act of graffiti, do not approach them. We recommend taking a picture with you camera phone and calling you local law enforcement agencies to follow-up. Often local agencies know who or can help to determine who is creating the graffiti and work to stop it from happening.

Case Studies: Coast to Coast

How are different communities working to eliminate graffiti, violence, and other gang-related crime? Following are successful program highlights from two East Coast and West Coast cities: Duarte, California

Gangs have been around for 30 years. They are not going away overnight. You can’t arrest your way out of it. The city can’t spend its way out of it. It’s about teamwork. You, the community, are a part of it. Without the partnership of the community we can’t be successful.

—Brian Villalobos, Director of Public Safety, City of Duarte

Nestled in the San Gabriel Valley, the city of Duarte has long enjoyed a reputation as a peaceful community. However, immigration by poor Hispanic families to the city’s unincorporated area has fueled racial tensions, leading to increased gang activity. Today, three multigenerational street gangs and nine cliques operate here, recruiting young Latinos and African-Americans from low-income families.

With 152 active block captains and co-captains, Duarte’s Neighborhood Watch program is an important informational conduit through which law enforcement officers educate residents about gang-related crime trends as well as receive tips from residents about recent incidents. However, overcoming language and cultural barriers to increase Neighborhood Watch participation among the city’s burgeoning immigrant communities has proven challenging. But not impossible. “With the right personnel, we’ve gotten Watch groups started,” said Duarte Public Safety Crime Prevention Specialist Aida Torres. “You must empower people. You need to send someone who relates to them and speaks their language. It’s like social work combined with law enforcement.”

According to Torres, the best way to build trust with residents is through local youth. “For Neighborhood Watch to be effective, we have to reach parents. They are usually willing to get involved because they want a better life for their children,” she explained. “Many immigrants don’t speak English or understand the law, but they listen to what their kids tell them.”

Last year, the City of Duarte Public Safety Department was awarded a grant from the California Emergency Management Agency to fund gang intervention and prevention education for at-risk students in grades K-8, their parents, and teachers. Through the Prevention and Intervention Program (PIP), the city and its 12 partner organizations will offer tutoring, parenting classes, counseling and mentoring, access to YMCA activities, as well as gang and drug awareness training.

Educational programs also provide a forum for dialogue and allow law enforcement officers to quell rumors that might incite violence. Torres tells of a local Hispanic teenager who was shot by an African American gang member because of her alleged association with a rival gang. On the surface, the incident appeared to be racially motivated. “This created racial tension in the high school, which can lead to more gang violence,” she said. “When a gang-related incident occurs, it is important to work with local schools to stop the spread of gossip.”

Another component of the PIP initiative is Parks After Dark, a series of recreational, educational, and cultural events held at a central venue. Residents are invited to enjoy free family-oriented movies and meals, interact positively with law enforcement, or even get their groove on at free outdoor Zumba dance classes. Live concerts appeal to diverse musical tastes, with performances by salsa, swing, R&B, and pop artists. Community input allows city planners to tailor these activities to resident interests, explains Eduardo Cordero, Los Angeles County probation supervisor and project site coordinator. “We work with Neighborhood Watch groups and include them at programming meetings. They live in the community and provide good ideas and resources to help us organize these events.”

The kickoff Duarte Parks After Dark series was held from July to September 2010 in Pamela Park, selected due to its reputation as a high-gang-related crime area. Officials estimated attendance at 4,775, yet criminal activity in and around the park dropped 90 percent—with no gang-related arrests—during the three-month event series, according to the Los Angeles County Chief Executive’s Office.

Richmond, Virginia

Across the country, another successful effort to combat gang violence is underway. The Richmond Gang Reduction and Intervention Program (GRIP) began with a grant from the U.S. Bureau of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). GRIP originally targeted a south Richmond community that is transitioning from a middle-class to a working-class population, with an increase in Hispanic residents. The program has since expanded to the north side of the city as well. Sponsored by the state attorney general, GRIP encompasses more than 40 programs focused on five strategic areas:

  • Primary prevention targets the entire population in high-crime, high-risk communities. A key component of gang prevention is the Richmond One Stop resource center, which provides referrals and facilitates distribution of health and other resources to at-risk residents. Other prevention activities include after-school and summer classes in both traditional and nontraditional topics, including theatre, dance, and skateboarding. Also offered are job training partnerships as well as English as a second language (ESL) and citizenship classes, designed to help immigrants improve language skills and prepare for naturalization.
    As part of its prevention campaign, the Virginia Office of the Attorney General has also produced a video titled The Wrong Family and conducts presentations across the Commonwealth. The video received positive feedback throughout Virginia and, in 2009, was translated to Spanish, with certain scenes reshot using bilingual actors, in an effort to reach out to the Hispanic population. To date, more than 800 copies of the video have been distributed both statewide and nationally. This past September, the Attorney General’s office released a new video, Big Lie: Unmasking the Truth Behind Gangs, a supplement to The Wrong Family. This second video exposes the lies and manipulation to which gang recruits are typically subjected and illustrates healthy lifestyle choices young people can make instead. To view the trailer, click on here, or for more information, visit www.oag.state.va.us/Programs%20and%20Resources/Gangs/GANGS_The_Big_Lie.html.
  • Secondary prevention involves schools, community-based organizations, and other partners to identity at-risk children ages 7 to 14 and provide age-appropriate services, including gang awareness training, truancy and drop-out prevention programs, and the opportunity to attend class action summer camps, which are taught by law enforcement who provide instruction on Virginia laws affecting young people.
  • Using aggressive outreach, ongoing recruitment, and careful planning and coordination of services, intervention targets active gang members and their associates ages 10 to 24. The goal is to provide youth with positive alternatives to gang life. Program assistance includes job training and placement, tattoo removal, and substance abuse counseling.
  • Gang leaders are targeted for aggressive suppression efforts. Activities include directed police patrols, community awareness, increased law enforcement intelligence-sharing, multi-agency law enforcement and prosecution response, and more school resource officers. In turn, government and law enforcement leaders are reaching out to local Crime Stoppers and Neighborhood Watch organizations in an effort to expand community awareness, promote reporting of crime, and boost citizen involvement in the fight against gangs.
  • Reentry targets gang-involved offenders who face challenges to reentering their community by providing individualized services and juvenile justice supervision aimed at reducing recidivism.

Like in Duarte, Richmond leaders have had to address pockets of the community with negative views of law enforcement. In a trust-building effort, the state has sponsored several events, including four community cleanup throughout the Commonwealth. “Some people think that police just lock everybody up and that the city doesn’t care about issues such as gangs and trash,” said Jessica Smith, Office of the Virginia Attorney General. “These events show the positive side of law enforcement and send a message to gang members that the community cares and won’t put up with crime.”

In recognition of its efforts, Richmond GRIP received the 2009 Motorola Webber Seavey Award: Quality in Law Enforcement and, in 2009, OJJDP named Richmond GRIP a Best Practices program.

Learning More:

City of Duarte Public Safety Department

Virginia Office of the Attorney General, Richmond, created “Getting a GRIP on Gangs”, a brochure on gangs directed at parents and the community.

Federal Bureau of Investigation - Gangs Section

GraffitiHurts.org - Care for Your Community is a grassroots community education program. Developed in 1996 by Keep America Beautiful, Inc.through a grant from The Sherwin-Williams Company. It is dedicated to raising awareness about the harmful effects of graffiti vandalism on communities.

Los Angeles Police Department, “How Are Gangs Identified

National Gang Center- features the latest research about gangs; descriptions of evidence-based, anti-gang programs; and links to tools, databases, and other resources to assist in developing and implementing effective community-based gang prevention, intervention, and suppression strategies

USA Today,2009, “FBI: Burgeoning gangs behind up to 80% of U.S. crime,”

The Washington Times,2011, “Brutal Mexican drug gang crosses into U.S.