When I was a wee lad, just beginning to look at street gangs I went to (and ended up conducting) a lot of training about ‘street gang awareness’. One of the highlights of any such presentation is the display of a rougue’s gallery of photos of people wearing clothes or posing in ways that indicate their gang affiliation. It’s usually done to show how pervasive gangs our in our culture and (when the audience is civilians) designed to scare the bejeezus out of them so that they’ll approve tighter regulations in schools or approve that new police budget for fancy new pop guns and high-tech toys. That’s not the entire reason and most people to who on these presentations honestly believe that street gangs are an existential threat to our society. Therefore they tend to see the evils of gang influence everywhere they look (I call it having ‘gang goggles’ on but that phrase has stubbornly refused to enter the mainstream lexicon).
One of my biggest regrets now is that I did the same thing. I took pictures of people ‘throwing gang signs’, like everyone else and we all liked to get that picture of the little kid because that would get the gasps from the audience and clucking from concerned parents (How could anyone raise their children like THAT?!).
But let’s face it, a gang sign does not a gang member make. Case in point.
I bring this up because some law enforcement agencies have attempted to develop criteria for identifying who is and who is not a gang member and usually one of the criteria is if there are photographs of the suspect engaging in ‘gang like behavior’ (whatever the hell that means) or displaying gang symbols or wearing clothing affiliated with a gang either in terms of color or style.
I’ll just point out that not only is the President flashing a gang sign but he’s also wearing the color blue (his tie) which is well known to be affiliated with the Crips street gang. If he was picked up for a crime in some jurisdictions he could probably be classified as a member based on this photo (I exaggerate, of course. If he was a minority however, I’m not so sure).
Now, I don’t write this to beat up on law enforcement or claim that gang members are no threat to society. Rather, it underscores the need for a clear definition (or set of definitions) of what a gang is and what constitutes membership. There may be different definitions for different actors (the law enforcement community may need one that focuses on criminality while social services may want one that focuses on risk or some other criteria)
Wow…talk about timing. Here’s an example of the sort of thing I was talking about (I swear I wrote this post first and then saw the story).
Every parent’s worst nightmare — evidence of gang activity in local schools and malls — flashed across the projector screen at Bucks County Technical High School on Wednesday night. Cops showed Crips gang graffiti outside a Bristol school, images of Pennsbury students in blue bandanas and a young man demonstrating Bloods gang symbols to Bensalem police. Area malls are selling gang paraphernalia, police said. Parents like Marie Gordon of Middletown largely sat stunned.
“Holy cow,” one mother whispered under her breath. “This is unbelievable.”
Arlene Weisberg of Bensalem said she was shaken by what she heard. “I always felt safe as an innocent bystander, but tonight I don’t feel safe anymore,” she said.
Now, those same cops are recruiting parents to help them identify local teen gang members.
Perhaps someone should be asking what, exactly, those cops will be doing with information by untrained personnel who are ‘identifying’ local teens as gang members? Will those names be going into some database (probably not, but possible) or intelligence system? Do they have a plan for how to deal with these gang members or is this just a fishing expedition?