Gangs are everywhere — and denial is no solution

Feb. 16, 2013 @ 11:14 AM

M. Michaux Parker is an assistant professor in the Public Administration Department  at N. C. Central University, and he has taught in the Criminal Justice Department. A graduate of NCCU, he worked as a police officer and gang specialist in Durham and elsewhere before pursuing advanced degrees in criminal justice. He has written extensively about gangs in the “Journal of Gang Research,” the “American Journal of Criminal Justice” and other publications. He explains some of his findings in a discussion with Rob Waters of the NCCU Office of Public Relations.  This article originally appeared in “Quest,” a new magazine published by NCCU and focusing on research.

Q. What are some of the big things the public doesn’t understand about gangs?

Number one is that gangs are everywhere. It’s not an “over there” problem. But by treating it as just a big-city issue, we allow ourselves this comfort of not having to address it.

The thinking in many communities seems to be, “If we address the problem, it means we’re a bad place — say, like Detroit — and we like to think of ourselves as much better.” But all places have gangs.  When a community becomes a great place to live, it’s a great place for good people and a great place for bad people.

A second thing is that gangs have been around since the beginning of time. The first American gang on record was in 1791. A Philadelphia newspaper that year warned citizens not to go out at night because there was a “criminal mob.”

I would also want people to know that gangs are very organized. It’s not like the Little Rascals.

Q. Research by you and others shows children are drawn toward gangs when they’re quite young — not just in middle school but also in elementary school — and that kids this age should be the target of prevention efforts. Why do many communities and school systems resist intervening?

Many parents feel that if their child is getting involved in gang-related activities, it means they’re bad parents. That’s not necessarily the case, but it’s the No. 1 stigma I see when I talk to parents about early intervention. They become angry — and they don’t want to believe their child could be involved in a gang. They will give it a neutralizing definition.  Yes, he has burned a gang brand into his arm with a cigarette lighter, but he doesn’t really know what it means. I’ve had parents tell me he did it by accident. Whatever a child does, the parent is usually the first to notice, but — because of denial — the last to know.      

So when you start to talk about early intervention, you meet resistance, because many parents have this assumption that it means “I’m a bad parent.”

What do you think should be done about gang problems here in Durham? What policies would you implement?

If I had a magic wand, I would start with an assessment to determine the number of groups that are here, their level of sophistication and the level of crime they’re engaged in, so I could rank and classify each group to show how much of a threat they pose. 

Then I would undertake a systematic investigation of each group using the federal RICO (Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) law — not just one or two gangs, but all of them, to remove them from the city. That may seem like an extreme response, but the problem here is a lot more entrenched than people perceive it to be.

Quite a bit of research shows that RICO prosecution is one of the most effective ways to actually remove gangs from a jurisdiction. It takes time and resources, and it requires collaboration between the local police and a federal prosecutor, but it allows you to take all the members of a gang rather than just a few people at the top who have others waiting to step up.

It’s a lot like cancer. If you’re having surgery, the surgeon has to remove all of the cancer, because if he doesn’t, it’ll grow back, often in a more virulent way.

Then I would allocate resources to Parks and Recreation to create structured programs year-round for kids.  Research we’re seeing shows that a high number of kids are joining gangs simply because they don’t have anything else to do. Those issues can be pretty easily addressed by offering alternatives. 

From the recovery and intervention standpoint, I would allocate more resources to social service organizations. Many of the forces that steer kids toward gangs originate from need, and social service organizations are better able to address those things. Law enforcement agencies lack the mandate and funding to serve as social service providers. Under normal circumstances, law enforcement also lacks the authority to go to someone’s house and check on a child’s well-being.

The point is, this is not simply a law-enforcement issue. We should be directing the appropriate resources to the appropriate agencies.

Q. In communities where gangs are established, the violence — particularly the shootings and homicides — seems to run in cycles. What factors influence this?

There are many. You can have something as simple as gang members deciding to pursue a new criminal activity. This might reduce one type of crime while causing another type to spike. Gangs have evolved to where they don’t fight for turf the way they used to. They fight for criminal markets.  If a gang is selling drugs in one particular area and they think another gang is trying to move in, you’ll have conflict. Another factor is how well the gang polices its own members. Having members who are excessively violent will attract attention from law enforcement, which is bad for business.

A gang member who is a lone wolf can spike a crime wave simply because of the rules of gang culture. A new member who hasn’t really learned the rules of the gang — one who buys into the TV image that a gang member is supposed to shoot people and do drive-bys and crazy things like that — that one person can trigger violent policies of the gang. If the lone wolf shoots a rival gang member, the rival gang is required to shoot two or three of the first gang in retaliation, and so on. So the initiation of the wrong person into a gang can initiate a wave of violence. 

Another issue is urban development.  It can change the crime dynamics of an area. For example, when they tore down Few Gardens in Durham some years ago, the residents — including the gang members — dispersed all over the city.

Q. You say that gangs fight for markets much more than they fight for turf. So are they essentially business enterprises?

If you are a leader of a gang that has evolved beyond the simple dynamics of just causing mayhem, violence is bad. According to movies and TV, all gang members want to do is commit violence all the time. In reality, gangs have to make money — with drugs especially, there are serious profits involved — and violence is bad for business. They resort to violence only when they perceive they have to. The more violence your gang is involved in, the more attention you draw from police.

And you run the risk of making what we call the fatal error if you’re a gang leader: You don’t ever want to turn the community against you. In most areas where gangs are entrenched, the community supports them. They give money to people, they buy ice cream for kids, they buy toys at Christmas, they give food away — that’s what we call the corporatization of gangs.

You see this all over the country, and you certainly see it in parts of Durham. Gang members in a specific neighborhood take care of people, even though they are selling drugs and are engaged in all sorts of crime. But if there’s too much violence for too long, you run the risk of falling out of favor with the community.  And the neighbors will then rat you out, where they wouldn’t have told on you before if the violence was moderate.

Q. You’re working toward building a model — a set of tests and questions and assessments — that has the potential to identify kids who are most at risk for gang involvement and intervene. That’s a kind of ultimate goal, right?

Yes. One goal is to further develop a mathematical assessment to let us know not only whether or not specific children are at risk of becoming gang members, but telling us mathematically how close they are to that gang membership. We call it a Gang Risk Assessment Model (GRAM).

This type of analysis is much more rigorous than just saying he or she is wearing red, or wearing blue; we call those types of identifiers artifactural identifiers, and they’re not very good. It’s too easy to misidentify someone. But using this mathematical model, we’re able to look at personality differences, associative differences, engagement differences, things that aren’t going to change overnight, things that are more accurate indicators of what that kid is actually thinking, believing and going through. And that would let us target kids more quickly — and much more accurately.