Gangs in New Jersey

The Asbury Park Press is running a 7 part series on street gangs in Monmouth and Ocean counties.

Only the first three parts are up as of today but I’ve got some initial thoughts on what’s up so far.

First, let me get this out of the way without further comment.  Draw your own conclusions about why I link to it…

If you’re going to expend the time and resources to produce a big project like this you better make some pretty bold statements.  Saying “Meh…It ain’t that bad”, probably won’t cut it.  Unfortunately, when you talk about gangs it’s easy to get into the realm of unsubstantiated statements like the following:

“…gangs the No.1 threat to residents of the Shore and New Jersey, according to law enforcement authorities at all levels.”

I have no idea how they came to that conclusion.  I’m not saying they’re wrong but law enforcement agencies aren’t really known for coming up with rigorous (or even slapdash) criteria and metrics so I’d be surprised if this sort of statement doesn’t have it’s origin firmly in anecdotal evidence, fuzzy definitions and unexamined assumptions.

“They commit, according to the 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment, 80 percent of the crime in communities nationwide.”

A highly dubious number that the threat assessment distanced itself from in its own report.

Some of the sources of information for the stories were gang members.  While their bona fides were apparently confirmed with local authorities, the authors appeared to take their claims at face value.  For example:

“We’re planning for the future,” said a Latin King who long has played a leadership role in the Central Jersey-based branch of the gang that’s highly structured and business-oriented. “Kings are very versatile. Financiers? Sometimes those bigwigs are Latin Kings. We’ve got Kings on Wall Street.”

Yeah…that might be true but it should be noted that the Latin Kings have been singing that same tune for almost 20 years now.  They have demonstrated a better ability to organize than other street gangs and have expressed an interest in expanding into legitimate businesses for some time but don’t go thinking they’re sitting on the board of Goldman Sachs or anything.  That’s a different type of crook.

A member of the Sex Money Murder set of the Bloods known as “P” said he leads with military precision some 5,700 members of his Bloods set who live in Monmouth County.

Just for some context here.  Monmouth County, New Jersey has a population of 642,000.  A Bloods population (remember that’s separate from any other gang members in the county) of 5,700 members would be .88% of the country population.  Think about that for a second.  Approximately 5,700 members of a highly disciplined organization that’s able to do all the things the term ‘military precision’ entails while being able to keep such an organization a secret from authorities.  Are we really to believe that an organization which would outnumber the combined size of all law enforcement agencies in the county would confine itself to the shadows?  That is, after all, about twice the size of a Brigade Combat Team.  So, like one does with ancient historians, best to divide all estimates of the size of forces by 10…

It is a shame they let a quote like that go unchallenged, especially since it’s so out of whack and there is evidence to contradict it.

Gang leaders frequently state that they want skilled members to assist the gang in making the transition from petty street crimes (narcotic sales, extortion, etc.) to more profitable organized criminal activity.  The problem has always been that their recruitment pool has generally come from the same place; socio-economic depressed areas where the skills and chances of social mobility are low.  You’ve got a small pool of people who will complete high school, have the money and/or interest in attending college to choose from.  Further, the work required to get those skills the gang thinks it wants requires an investment in time that it’s not clear gangs are willing to make in a systematic way.

Gang spokespeople also like to talk about developing skills in a way similar to spy agencies developing moles but I haven’t seen any evidence that there’s much appetite for that sort of long term investment on the part of gangs OR patience on the part of members who usually join gangs to do something other than go to school get a job and spend years getting into position to make a big score.

Gangs in schools (primary, secondary and university level) is a subject of much speculation and little fact.  The subject is delicate since it involves children and money and the general response from authorities has been to avoid looking or commenting on it with too much detail.  As a result it’s hard to know what’s really going on in any educational facilities with any degree of confidence.  Universities, in particular, have a reputation for avoiding discussions about crime on their campuses (After all, how would you feel about dropping 35k-50k a year for your kid to go to a school reported presence of organized crime groups?) and gang issues are no different.

In this regard, prisons and schools share some commonalities.  Both have captive populations and authorities of both are unable/unwilling to look to deeply at the extent to which gangs operate in their facilities.  Both are the primary points of recruitment (gangs generally don’t knock on doors or leave fliers announcing a recruitment drive) and yet receive little in the way of attention or resources to counter.

Gangs in New Jersey were increasing in size, scope and territory, the State Commission of Investigation concluded that “highly structured super-gangs” were, in effect, supplanting La Cosa Nostra in many areas of the state.

Here’s where the term ‘gang’ is showing its inadequacy.  When you have a term that can encapsulate both a trio of graffiti artists who occasionally sell marijuana and a highly organized network that engages in sophisticated and/or highly violent activities, the label begins to lose its value.

The stereotype of the typical gang member as being a street thug is being debunked in recent reports issued by the National Gang Intelligence Center, the State Commission of Investigation and the State Police.

I don’t think that’s the case at all.  The vast majority of gang criminality (at least according to this report):

“…tend to be ‘crimes of opportunity’ or ‘impulse crimes’ rather than crimes requiring planning, resources or organization.”

That’s not to say that some gangs aren’t breaking with that stereotype but just that the stereotype is probably still valid in the majority of cases.  In fact, one could argue that once a network has broken the stereotype they should no longer be considered a ‘gang’ and rather should be declared some other type of criminal group.

More later if it’s warranted.

2 responses to “Gangs in New Jersey

  1. Regardless of the topic, I think that root cause behind the issues you raise is that for well over a decade now, maybe two or even more, we have stopped teaching people how to think critically and objectively. Today the ‘rule’ is to seek that information that supports the case you want to put up and to ignore or mitigate that which does not. Once upon a time, we would consider all the information and draw a conclusion based upon what was, not what we wanted it to be…and if that meant our report did not reflect the beauty of the Emperor’s new cloths then so be it. Better a sour mouthful up front than a diet of sand later on…perhaps if some senior ‘thinkers’ had been more objective, the mess in Iraq would never have occurred and the campaign in Afghanistan would have been a done deal one way or another by the end of 2004.

    The superficiality of many contemporary researchers and their reports was something we saw again and again in the lessons learned world; and it was only when ABCA developed the CLAW that some light appeared at the end of the tunnel. As of the 2009 CLAW, that light was clearly brighter as many participants already had their heads around the processes and the need to disregard the symptoms on the surface and drill into the core issues.

    I keep harping on about the CLAW (and the follow-on OUTLAW process) because they are the only ones I have seen in ten years in the LL game that actually work and get to the heart of an issue. The key however is that you still need people with the honesty and courage to run with oft-unpopular and unpalatable findings…perhaps if the authors of this report in New Jersey gangs had stepped back from the issues a bit more and been a bit more open-minded they would have produced something more worth reading?

  2. Pingback: Bursting Bubbles « The World According to Me…

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