What Is a Gang?
A gang is a formal or informal on-going organization, association or group of three or more persons who:
- Have a common name, or common identifying symbols, signs, or colors
- Have members who individually or collectively engage in a pattern of criminal street gang activity
How Is a Gang Structured?
The internal structure of some street gangs is loosely similar to the organizational structure of many corporations. The leader, sometimes referred to as the Chairman of the Board, is surrounded by close knit and trusted groups of associates. These associates may have different titles such as generals or council members. Below the associates are the street soldiers or enforcers who are directly involved with defending the "turf", handling street level drug transactions, marking areas with graffiti, and recruiting new members.
It is quite common for the formal leader of a street gang to control the gang while in prison, and is in fact the case for most of the national gangs. The leaders, who like all other prisoners, has phone and visitor privileges, will issue orders from inside the institution and these orders will be carried back to the next in command on the street.
This type of business-like organizational structure is not true for all street gangs. Polk County's gangs have a very fluid and loose organizational structure. The leadership may change often and members may even change gangs going to a "rival" gang. However, you should not let this lead you to believe that gangs cannot become organized in Polk County. We are seeing an increase in the organizational structure of Polk County's street gangs. The leadership is becoming older and more stable also organized recruiting efforts are occurring. We also have documented ties from Polk County's street gangs to major gangs in Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as other large gang areas in the country.
Gangs will flourish and grow in Polk County if left unchecked. A cooperative effort between the community, schools, and law enforcement is necessary to prevent and eliminate gang activity.
Why Youths Join Street Gangs
Most youths join street gangs when they are young and vulnerable to the influences of older, more experienced gang members. They are unable to comprehend the long term consequences of gang activity, and do not realize that membership often results in one of only three outcomes; a criminal record, a prison sentence, or death.
It is important for parents and other responsible adults to know that recruitment into a street gang is often done by someone who is a peer of the youth being recruited. Street gang members are not always some scary outsider; they can be, and frequently are, the kid down the street.
Traditionally, initiation into a street gang involved a "jump in" or some form of physical altercation; however, the trend today seems to be more toward some sort of criminal act. This "jump in" process has also been used when a member seeks to break their ties to a gang, but unfortunately in some instances, members are not allowed to ever really leave a gang. Parents must realize that a gang demands and usually receives total loyalty. The interests of the gang are always more important than the interests of the member's family. The lure of gangs is strong, and they fulfill many physical, emotional and psychological needs which may not otherwise be satisfied. Some of these needs and the manner in which they are fulfilled are listed below:
- Psychological needs-Gangs provide love, brotherhood and compassion which are very often lacking in a child's life. This attention is often the only affection the child will receive and is very powerful in forging a strong bond between the child and his/her fellow gang members. Gangs also provide the discipline and leadership (however twisted) needed in this stage of a child's life.
- Security-The gang provides protection from enemies, either real or imagined.
- Social Acceptance-For the youth who has trouble making friends, the gang gives them someone to "hang out" with.
- Self-Esteem-Gangs typically recruit youths who have low self-esteem or are picked on by others. The gang provides "back up" for these kids, and protects them from further harassment.
- Fame-Gang membership provides the youth with an outlaw image and substantial amounts of money.
What Is Gang Activity?
We, as the general public, enjoy many of the same activities gang members do. The difference is that whenever gang members go to the mall, a movie, or hang out playing basketball at the neighborhood park, the potential for violence and criminal activity is much greater than for any other group of people. Gang activity to law enforcement is criminal in nature and may involve drug trafficking, burglary, theft, criminal mischief, assaults, intimidation, and in extreme cases, even murder. As the gang becomes more organized and membership increases, the level and seriousness of criminal activity increases. Media reports bring daily instances of innocent bystanders, often children, injured or killed because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes, the only reason for a violent incident was that the victim made the wrong hand sign, or wore the wrong clothing.
When a street gang enters a neighborhood it will immediately claim an area as its "turf" with boundaries most often defined by streets or landmarks. This area will be defended by the gang and no other gang is allowed to do "business" in (sell drugs, commit crimes, etc.), or enter its turf. The gang will then mark the area with graffiti to advertise its presence. Next, the gang will start recruiting new members either by intimidation or offering a sense of belonging or protection to impressionable youths. These youths will in turn be used to sell or carry drugs, steal, damage property, and through violence protect the gang's turf and recruit new members.
These are instances where a street gang will allow someone who isn't a gang member to engage in drug sales on its turf. These independent contractors or "neutrons" (neutral regarding gang affiliation) must, however, pay a portion of their profits to the gang in return for being allowed to conduct business within the gang's neighborhood.
Neighborhood businesses suffer the effects of gangs because they must withstand the loss of customers who avoid known or suspected gang areas where businesses are located. The local business owner must also absorb the cost of thefts and the removal of graffiti from marked buildings and store fronts.
Neighborhood residents will experience a drop in property values and peace of mind when gang related criminal activity increases. When a rival gang infringes on a local gang's turf, which is inevitable, the potential for drive-by shootings and gang fights increase and has, in many instances, led to innocent bystanders being injured or killed.
Where Are Polk County's Gangs?
Polk County gangs are not as turf oriented as some may think. Gangs are extremely mobile, especially when members are involved in criminal activity or visiting events or locations such as movies, shopping malls, and dances. Polk County has 18 gangs with approximately 2500 members and associates.
Sometimes they just want to be together and left alone. Members may hang out in areas where they feel they will not be contacted by law enforcement.
Often times their "hangout" may be a fellow gang member's home (which may be in your neighborhood), a small neighborhood park, near a school, or even at the rear of a business plaza.