Sunday, April 29, 2012

Guest Blog: Behavior and Group Dynamics In Gangs

April 29, 2012

By Lou Savelli

Gang members form powerful social connections that multiply the violence. Outlaw motorcycle gangs, organized crime, drug cartels and ethnic gangs come together for a common purpose that may start as a social thing but can evolve into something anti-social or criminal when the members who make up the gang are antisocial or criminals themselves.
Sociologists believe that a gang will take on the morals, or lack of morals, of the worst members and often exceed that lack of morals. This behavior often manifests itself in most or all of the gang's members, especially when they are together. This behavior can be explained as 'group dynamics,' which is essentially the way individuals behave when they are part of a group.
The behavior can become extreme. Such behavior is often displayed around the world during rioting. The riots that occur during or after sporting events or protests can lead individuals who may not be inclined to act in a violent manner to act in such a manner and exceed their own planned actions or expectations.
In the case of college students who usually display disciplined behavior and conformity, attendance at a post celebratory rally for their college's team can cause them to get 'caught up' in the more severe behavior of their fellow rally-goers. This can result in the usually behaved student becoming violent, undisciplined and uncontrollable.
This group dynamic that leads to bad behavior is also evident in so many of the "Girls Gone Wild" videos advertised on television networks after midnight. Individual behavior becomes elevated to the worse behavior being displayed by friends, as the crowds cheer them on with the presence of the camera and the brief opportunity for fame.
Many of these individuals, college students, girls going wild or gang members may later be shocked by their own behavior.
Several gang members have told me that they were dabbling in minor crimes such as graffiti and petty larceny before their membership in the gang but committed more serious and more violent crimes far beyond their nature and expectations as a member of the gang.  
One long-time gang member admitted to me that he never thought he could kill someone even if his life had depended on it but was involved in several gang-related murders as a member of his New York City gang. He freely told me he became physically ill during the first murder and, as he stated, 'puked his brains out' immediately afterward. Such stories were typical of the many gang members that I have interviewed during my law enforcement career and subsequent contacts.
I'm not making excuses for those individuals who typically, and as I have learned, join gangs, many members are merely followers. The hard-core members, overall, number a few in most of the gangs across the U.S. Nevertheless, the members of the gangs I'm going to highlight would easily kill someone or have already killed some or many. These gangs have shown a level of violence that may have led to their members, who were initially unwilling to reach such a violence level, become a savagely violent and callous person.
There is no excuse for someone who consciously makes the change from a person who is non-violent to someone who is violent and eventually kills with or for his gang. All are equally guilty.
Many gang members I have met, when isolated from their gang, show their true personalities. They often show signs of low self-esteem, being frightened by the thought of being alone in the streets or other traits quite opposite of the traits they show when with the other members of their gang.
These gang members can be merely frightened children who grow up into frightened adults who learn to victimize others as a way of making them feel better or committing crimes, because it seems easier than working at making an honest living. These frightened individuals lack discipline and social skills. Many have dyslexia or another form of learning disability, while others are bipolar or have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Some gang members fit the typical profile for what we would expect from a street thug. They come from dysfunctional families and lower socioeconomic and high-crime neighborhoods. There are also those members who come from solid backgrounds and middle-class neighborhoods who gravitate to gangs for popularity, street credibility, money-making or protection.
While many gang members have different personalities and traits and come from a variety of broken homes, most seem to be looking for an identity of their own or a chance to belong to something. These reasons satisfy powerful needs to an individual, especially a teenager. These needs include, but are not limited to, self-preservation, protection, love, discipline, identity, camaraderie, power, money, popularity or a chance to stand out or to get respect.
After the gang forms, it creates its own subculture that develops social standing and mores. Sociologically speaking, the gang becomes its own society for its members, while those members lose the connection to normal society and their biological or legal families.
Their goal is to maintain the function of the gang and the individual's social standing within the gang. Members may naturally fall into comfortable roles within the group. Leaders develop from those members who are usually more violent than the others or those members that are more charismatic or who have the desire to lead. Members with proven track records as risk-takers will socially end up near the top of the hierarchy of the gang. Those members who are less motivated and lack the guts of the others will take on less important roles.
Mores—moral rules and customs of a social group—develop as the gang develops. Acceptable behavior for the gang such as drug selling, drug use, shootings, stabbings, sexual deviance and other behavior become the norm for the gang.
Gang members find it increasingly difficult to interact in mainstream society. They make excuses for their behavior and blame everyone else for their failure. The more disconnected they get from society, as outlaws, the closer their connection to the gang and its mores.
This helps keep the gang's control over its members stronger. The members become more disconnected from society, old friends and real family. The activities of the gang become their normal functions. Others are viewed as outsiders and, at times, enemies. There is a lack of empathy toward others.
The gang's limited social conscience causes the individual member to find it difficult to interact with others who aren't members of the same gang. The gang becomes a job and a social function at the same time.
This article was republished with permission by Police Magazine. Sgt. Lou Savelli is the co-founder and vice president of the East Coast Gang Investigator's Association, a 23-year NYPD veteran, a former correctional officer with the Broward County (Fla.) Sheriff's and Hollywood (Fla.) PD. His Gangs Blog can be found at: 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Guest Blog: Gang Truces Usually Turn Out Badly for Cops

April 17, 2012
By Richard Valdemar

El Salvador's El Diario De Hoy newspaper announced on March 23 that the leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 Street gangs in El Salvador had reached a truce. The gang leaders met to negotiate the peace in prisons located in Ciudad Barrios and Cojutepeque.

The talks leading to the proposed truce were facilitated and mediated by the Salvadorian government and the Catholic Church. The head of the army and police chaplain corps Monsignor Fabio Colindres said, "We never spoke of a negotiation between the government and the gangs, nor between the church and gangs." And "we were mediating an understanding between rival gangs to decrease the violence."

According to a recent U.N. report, El Salvador and Honduras have the greatest rate of homicide in the world, 66 per 100,000 inhabitants in El Salvador, and 82.1 per 100,000 in Honduras. Guatemala with a rate of 41 homicides per 100,000 makes up the third part of the Central American killing ground for these two murderous gangs.

The Salvadorian authorities facilitated the movement of the imprisoned rival gang members for the truce talks but were not directly involved in the negotiations.

Romero Henriquez represented the Mara Salvatrucha gang and Ernesto Mojica represented the Mara 18 (18th Street) gang. The El Diario newspaper claimed that it had confirmation of the truce from Ernesto Mojica and with half a dozen other gang leaders.

Judging from the general celebratory commentary from the clueless American media and the reaction from police commenters on the Worldwide Web, you might presume that this is a good thing. Excuse me good senors and monsignor, but I think this treaty is only good for the predatory gang monsters in and out of those Central American prisons; it can't be good for us.

For years racist Black leaders have attempted to unite Crip and Blood gang members in well publicized "peace treaties." And like the MS-13 and 18th Street treaty the media just ate it up. The original Crip-Blood treaties were financed by local drug dealers, facilitated by the Nation of Islam (NOI), and supported by local politicians. The Crip and Blood gang wars were bad for business and the truce allowed the dope trafficking to continue. It also meant that the bothersome police would concentrate their efforts somewhere else.

The Nation of Islam utilized the truce to recruit young men and women into their movement. The strong presence of the NOI's security force the Fruit of Islam (FOI), that mediated the gang truce, gave NOI and FOI street credentials with the community. However their real intent was to turn the gang hate and violence against the police. About the time of the 1992 Rodney King Riots the NOI circulated flyers in the Los Angeles projects calling for jihad against the LAPD.

The local Los Angeles politicians had no fraternal motivation either in supporting the Crip and Blood truce, they were just looking for photo opportunities to be seen shaking hands with African American gang members hoping to reap votes in the South Central L.A. communities. They hired gang members into their failed gang intervention programs and paid them with millions of taxpayer funds. But the truce and the programs all failed to make it safer in the L.A. Projects.

Even in the U.S. prison system these gang truces have been tried several times. They have all failed within a short time.

And thank God for that. Can you imagine what a gang formed from all aligned Crip and Blood gangs or between the Mexican Mafia and the Nuestra Familia might be capable of? No longer distracted by their war against their rival gangs, they could direct all their efforts into victimizing citizens, killing cops, and industrializing their drug production and distribution.

History backs me up. In August 1939, Russia and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This truce was a non-aggression pact that enabled both nations to invade Poland without fear that the other would attack them. Before this they were bitter enemies. Shortly afterward, the pact failed. But imagine what would have happened in World War II if Hitler hadn't attacked Russia. It's unlikely that the Western allies could have prevented Hitler from conquering Europe if his armies weren't committed to the Russian campaign.

In 1931, the Commission was formed in New York, the Commission was actually part of a peace plan or truce devised to end the Italian Mafia wars. The truce established a governing gang commission and divided the mob into five New York families; Luciano, Magano, Gagliano, Propaci, and Maranzano.

While this for a time reduced the number of "made men" murdered annually, it did not make New York a safer place. The man who brought the truce plan into being became one of the first victims of the commission. On Sept. 10, 1931, "Lucky" Luciano assumed leadership by murdering Salvatore Maranzano, the commission founder.

Today, an alliance between the two largest criminal transnational gangs in the world, Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street, could be a very dangerous thing in Central America and here in the United States. Members of both gangs have not signed truces with the government or with law enforcement. They will continue to traffic in drugs and humans, and they will continue to use violence against their victims. This truce will not reduce the violence it will merely redirect it.

All the experienced gang officers I've contacted agree that this truce will also soon fail. But well-intentioned people will continue to try to get these gangs to the peace table, and others will try to utilize a truce for their own political purposes.

As thinking citizens of a lawful government our goal should be, disrupting, dismantling and eradicating all criminal gangs, not brokering dialog and peace treaties between them. Gang truces can only make the task of ending criminal gangs more difficult.

This article was republished with permission by Police Magazine. Sgt. Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs. His Gangs Blog can be found at: 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Do Anti-Gang Violence Programs Work?

As most gang workers and police know, gang activity and gang crime is often a very hard thing to assess by looking at just statistics alone.  The National Gang Center website, formerly the National Youth Gang Center, states that it has a good analysis of “evidence based” findings.  They also have nearly 15 years of data collected by their annual National Youth Gang Survey of 2,500 U.S. law enforcement agencies.  Groups like the NGC focus on youth gangs, but not the vast majority of adult offenders that police crime and gang data bases (whether or not they admit they even exist for fear of legal issues) show are gang affiliated.  There appears to be a denial of some facts on the part of NGC and a big problem for communities when it comes to trying to get an accurate description of gang related issues they may be facing.  (See the NGC Response in below Comment section).  While the NGC and major government funded groups like them do some real good work in many areas, the widely-circulated and relied upon gang information released from groups like them often controls subsequent government grant funding:

Some critics point out this so called evidence and stats generated by it can be skewed and sometimes misleading.  Agencies may choose not to fill out surveys, do it incomplete, or enter info based on their own systems that may not be entirely accurate.  Studies written on gangs are often based on this data and are often authored by college professors that have little to no hands on experience working with street gangs.  It is often hard to match these academic studies with reality in the field.  First of all, there is no gang definition or validation form that is standard nationwide.  Different agencies define gang members differently.  Competing data systems like GANG-NET and RISS do exist.  This can lead to discrepancies in reports on levels of gang activity which are often relied upon as “scientific proof”.  No matter how the data is gathered, many communities have tried to address gang violence problems via local government supported programs. 

In Seattle during the 2009-12 fiscal years, the Youth Violence Prevention Initiative budget included a multi-million dollar effort to try and change how the city dealt with youth violence.  This included monitoring gang members, who commit a far higher number of crimes than your average youth, but was not exclusively limited to gang members.  It was noted, youth-at-risk, gang associates, and so called Wanna-B’s will often commit crimes in efforts they say will protect themselves, or to impress older Original Gangsters (OGs), or so that other youth will fear them.  The Initiative serves about 800 young people a year who are at highest risk of perpetuating violence or becoming victims.  In 2008, five teenagers were shot to death in Seattle, then-Mayor Greg Nickels brought together community leaders, principals, members of the faith community, and others to develop a new approach to preventing youth and gang-related violence.  The program was continued under Mayor-elect Mike McGinn.  Previously, the city had a “Team for Youth” program that in early years seemed to work effectively but some said had outgrown the times.  Others said the change was more about youth service providers jockeying for position for government funding:

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa points to a 17% overall reduction in gang crime since the city’s new anti-gang program started, but there again stats can be skewed, and the drop in crime may not be entirely attributed to such programs.  One piece of the Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD) Program that seems to be working well is the Summer Night Lights (SNL) program which keeps parks in gang-plagued neighborhoods open at night during the summer.  But, many critics also point out that gang and drug intervention programs are easily infiltrated by gang members who may use these programs as fronts.  This includes the hiring of many “former" male gang members as well as hiring female staff that often are married or have boyfriends who are or were gang members.  In Los Angeles, it was found that some gang intervention workers were involved in criminal activity, funding was scrapped for some programs and a new initiative was put in place.  Other people say only past gang members can understand current gang members and their issues.  Regardless, ever since it was implemented, there has been a lot of debate over the L.A. Mayor’s expensive gang program:

In Chicago, a long tradition of gang violence surged in 2010-12.  Some former gang officers stated that it was due in part to a new generation of gangsters eager to make their mark on neighborhoods.  Some former Chicago Police Department staff confided that the department changed how it operated after several scandals hit the Gang Units and not always in good ways.  Some officers believed CPD engaged in de-policing for fear of being investigated or wrongfully accused by gang members.  They said it was best to just sit back and not be pro-active any longer.  Gang crime soared!  In particular, as it was pointed out, gang crime would go up when there was a gang shooting and right afterwards there was a retaliatory shooting so the crime rate doubled right there unless better efforts were made to be pro-active after a gang shooting.  "The Chicago Police Department is going to retool our gang strategy from top to bottom", said Supt. Garry McCarthy on March 19, 2012.  McCarthy said the department's new strategy will include a gang audit that merges two kinds of intelligence data into a central repository for the beat officer.  This effort was supported by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel who was the former Chief of Staff for President Barack Obama.  Meanwhile, Chicago’s Cease Fire program hired former gang members as “Interrupters”. The program focused on three main stages to reduce violence: 1) Identification & Detection, 2) Interruption, Intervention, & Risk Reduction, 3) Changing Behavior and Norms:

All four of the above cited programs with internet links have their critics and their supporters.  Again, the problems raised above often makes it very hard to tell if gang prevention and intervention programs are always effective.  Still, we must try to combat gang problems in our communities.  We must try to figure out how well it is working but not just rely on stats alone.  Gang unit officers, youth intervention workers, gang prevention workers are the real experts when it comes to dealing with gangs.   Parents and school staff are also big stakeholders.  I say survey all of them "anonymously" in the areas of Suppression, Intervention, and Prevention, because otherwise they might feel compelled to rate their success higher due to employment or funding issues, and that will likely be a good gauge if programs and agencies really work?  We must also remember that it can cost $40,000 or more a year to house somebody in prison.  A police officer’s salary can range from $50,000 a year to nearly $100,000 in some places.  A small amount of money spent on trying to prevent and deter youth from joining gangs or time spent intervening with young people can save us all a lot as a society in the long run and give us a quality of life that money alone cannot measure!

What are your thoughts on gang prevention, intervention, and suppression programs?  Do they work or are they just a waste of tax payers’ money?