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The Growth of Modern Street Gangs and Police Enforcement on Gangs

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Since the fall of 2001, the United States justice system has mobilized to protect the nation against terrorism. Federal states, and local governments have shifted scarce resources to the terrorist beat, and homeland security has become the new watch world in law enforcement. Although no body questions the need for aggressive antiterrorist action, some experts are expressing concerns that some more traditional criminal gangs are taking advantage of this lack of attention. In particular, a wave of street gang violence is threatening to overwhelm local police department in many communities. The big concern is that outside the United States, terrorists like al-Qaida are not killing people, but gang violence is killing many people every single day (Larry, 2007).

Like most other indicators of criminal activity, gang related homicides decreased in the late 1990s. The trend has reversed itself in the 2000s, however: between 1999 and 2002, gang violence increased by over fifty percent. According to the US Department of justice, there are over thirty thousand criminal gangs with close to a million members in the United States. A street gang refers to any group of people who form an allegiance for a common purpose and engage in violent, unlawful, or criminal activity. The department of justice further estimates that the Los Angeles metropolitan area alone is home to over seven hundred gangs, with over hundred thousand members (Larry 2007).  This group is responsible for half of the city’s homicides.

The Growth of Modern Street Gangs and Police Enforcement on Gangs

Like all other upsurges in violent gang activity over the past several decades, particularly in the late 1980s, the current increase is closely related to the illegal drug trade and use of firearms to protect the trade. The difference, according to some experts, is that more people are becoming involved in gangs for purely economic reasons, rather than the cultural or territorial motives that have traditionally fuelled gang membership.  One in every three gangs runs drug-dealing operations. In addition, some researchers believe that some gangs have superior weapons than most police forces, making it very difficult for the law enforcers to control their activities.

Although superior gangs, such as the Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings and Gangster Disciples are still responsible for their share of gang-related criminal activity in the United States, a relative newcomer has gained the attention of the law enforcement community because of its rapid growth and brutality. To escape the violence, thousands of immigrants fled to the United States, particularly to Los Angeles. Their children found themselves easy prey to the existing local gangs and formed the MS-13 as a protective measure. 

The gang soon became involved in crime rings of its own, and the authorities responded by deporting the members – and their violent gang culture-en masse back to Central America.  A large number of its members now operate in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, where they have killed thousands of people over the last decade.  MS-13, in particular, has gained reputation of attacking the wives and other family members of rivals. In 2003, the El Salvadorian government responded with a legislation, which makes gang membership illegal. Furthermore, as part of operations to eliminate the gang, Salvadoran police gained the freedom to arrest anyone they thought was a gang member, often based on nothing more than suspects clothing and tattoos (Bruce 1999).

This legislation led to deadly reactions from the gang in protest. On December 23 2004, some six gang members boarded a bus in the northern city of San Pedro Sula and killed twenty-eight passengers, including six children, in protest to the crackdown. The law enforcement measures have been very popular with the populace; however, gang activity dropped significant following their implementation.

American law enforcement agencies cannot respond with a similar operation. Under most circumstances, the fourth amendment to the U.S. constitution does not allow law enforcers to make arrests based on suspect’s appearance only.  This does not mean, however, that officials technical limitations when it comes to street gangs. In 2005, the FBI launched a nationwide taskforce to target MS-13, the first one of its kind to concentrate on a single street gang. Later that year, in cooperation with the local police departments, the federal police arrested over hundred gang members, the first in what promises to be many large operations against such gangs.

Direct law enforcement action is only one of the many ways to combat crime. Another way of combating crime is to deter criminal behaviour by enacting legislation that raise the cost of engaging in crime in the first place. Four states- California, Indiana, Florida, and Missouri – have recently passed legislation making those individuals involved in gang-related murders eligible for the death penalty. Jurisdiction can also pass legislation to control behaviour that may not be criminal itself but can lead to future crime. A number of communities have “antiloitering” laws that allow police to disperse groups of people on sidewalks and arrest those who raise specific suspicions.

            The United States Supreme Court, however, struck down a Chicago ordinance, which prohibited people from gathering with no apparent purpose, because it gave the police too much freedom to determine whether a suspect’s reason was apparent or not. For instance, many MS-13 and other predominantly Hispanic street gangs have violated US immigration law by entering the country illegally. Therefore, police can use the immigration provisions to detain such suspects without having the burden of proving that they were involved in any criminal activity. Then, instead of going through the costly and time-consuming process of a criminal trial, the law enforcers can simply return the suspects to their home countries (Jody 2001). 

Of course, this policy has negative consequences for the home countries of the gangs, which have to again deal with an onslaught of hardened and experienced criminals. It may also have a negative effect on the fight against global terrorism. American and foreign officials fear that groups such as al-Qaida will seek such gang members from Central America and Mexico.  After all, most of the gangs’ members have made successful clandestine crossing of the U.S. boarder and may be willing to help others do so for the right price.

Another worrying trend is the growth of juvenile street gangs.  Police have to deal with the ever-growing juvenile street gangs involved in the illegal drug industry, racketeering and murder. Studies show that juvenile violence rates are high in urban areas where teenage gangs thrive. Gangs’ killings may result from warfare between rival groups over neighbourhood territory or over control of local drug trade; drive by shootings where enemies are killed and innocent bystanders are sometimes caught in the crossfire. Such killings account for thousands of deaths every year. Traditionally the police response to gangs was to seek ways of preventing inter gang warfare. In some departments, this meant special gang units separate from or attached to the juvenile divisions developing.  The activities of these special units was to collect intelligence information on various gangs and intervene when possible inter gang warfare was imminent.  The strategy was largely unsuccessful, and homicides by gang members continued to increase annually.  For instance, in Los Angeles alone, the Bloods and the Crips (two of the most notorious street gangs) have been responsible for as many as one homicide every single day, according to police estimates (Jody 2001).

A more recent strategy to controlling gang violence involves police treating gangs as organised criminal groups. This means using various techniques traditionally used in dealing with more organised crime organizations.  These techniques include the use of informants, promises of immunity and relocation of key witnesses, electronic surveillance and long-term deep cover operations.  Additionally, efforts by the federal and local justice department have resulted to creation of special statutes to make prosecution easier.  Unfortunately, most anti-gang activities have been less than successful. For the most part, gangs are not as formally organised as the police thought.   In fact, they are loosely organised group with rapidly changing leaderships and organizational structures. When police concentrate attention on gangs, it frequently causes them to become more organized and cohesive- the exact opposite of what the police would want.

The special weapons and tactic (SWAT) teams have become increasingly popular among municipal police agencies as speciality units in dealing with street gangs. Both civilians and police officers consider these squads of professionally trained officers as elite teams of highly trained and competent law enforcement professionals (Jody 2001). SWAT teams are often called in to deal with continuing and particularly hazardous situations when other options have failed or when significant and immediate dangers to human life present (a sniper on a rooftop, a hostage held in a store by robbers, a husband wheeling a short gun while keeping his family locked in their apartment, etc.).

 In some jurisdictions, these units are simply known as tactical teams.  In other jurisdictions, these teams have friendly names. For example, in San Jose, California, the tactical team is known as Mobile Emergency Response Group and Equipment (MERGE). However, regardless of what name one call these teams, their primary design role is responding to critical situations. Members of these teams receive firearms and strategic planning training in climbing and rappelling, handling highjackings or other hostage situations, and riot control tactics.

Perhaps the first obstacle weighing against success in peacemaking is the assumptions about gangs, U.S. gangs in particular. The gang form, in its various guises, is a permanent part of the American social fabric, developing spontaneously in marginalized groups from the colonial period though the Italian Mafioso in the modern era up to the present-day Mexican Mafioso, rendering the idea of complete eradication of gangs unrealistic. A better understanding may premise itself on the idea that the gang problem cannot be eradicated unless there is a decisive address on the factors that lead to gang membership. Acceptance of street gangs as reflections of underclass permits focus on the real problem – violence (bruce 1999). 

Understanding that gangs will persist helps law enforces and other stakeholders to remove the violence aspect from the gang culture. In this regard, the hip-hop culture is illustrative. The culture came about as an antidote to gang culture; it produced crews, which were like non-violent gangs.  They had particularly all the elements, including criminality, of the gangs that preceded them, except that violence was somewhat forced from the repertoire. Therefore, hip-hop created an avenue for displacing physical violence, even though practically everything else stayed (Susan 2011).

According to researchers and analysts, the idea that enforcement agencies will one day eliminate gangs is the foremost obstacle to long-term intervention. The lure of street gangs is directly links strategies contemplating long-term interventions, especially because their no strategy for preventing formation of the gangs. Plainly, gangs have been round in different forms due to situations of marginality. From slave patrol to urban gangs to modern police gang units, the notion of gangs is seemingly endemic to U.S. history. Today, however, street gangs are a special target of social and political wrath. As long as perceptions of real danger exist in the ghettos, gang culture will persist as a means to secure oneself. The will to gang formation may function as a contract made in the state of nature; the binding of the contract as cumbersome as they may be, are nothing compared to life in the wild. Perhaps the only catch is that gang membership offers no relief from the wild, or if anything, it offers susceptibility to violence (Sudhir 2002).

In conclusion, dealing with street gangs is a challenge for the American society and its law enforcement agencies. Gangs account for a large number of deaths every single year. However, police efforts involving violent and legal processes have yielded little results in dealing with the menace. Perhaps, this could be due to the existing constitutional rights of citizens and controls over how much the police can exercise their freedom. From a social point of view, it is important to forge friendly channels of dealing with gangs, which include resolving the issues that drive young people into membership of the gangs.

  • Bruce, B. (1999). Policing in Modern Society. Oxford: Gulf Professional Publishing.
  • Jody, M and Cheryl, M. (2001). The modern gang reader. Los Angeles: Roxbury Pub. Co.
  • Larry, G. and Roger, M. (2007). Criminal justice in action. New York: Cengage Learning.
  • Susan, N. and Zachariah, C. (2011). Peacemaking: From Practice to Theory. New York: ABC-CLIO.
  • Sudhir, V. (2002). American project: the rise and fall of a modern ghetto. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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