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The Gang Problem: Street Gangs on the East Coast (Part 2 of 3)

Author: John Christopher Fine

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2014-05-15
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Gang Violence and Public Safety - Part 2 of 3 - East Coast

Originally published in our Nov/Dec 2009 issue

Photos by the Author

The ongoing crisis faced by law enforcement across the United States and internationally concerning gang activity centers around criminal activity perpetrated by gang members that are well structured and organized.  They are motivated by profit from violent crimes and burglaries as well as from trafficking in illegal controlled substances.

Sociologists and academics offer many reasons for the appeal of gangs to young people.  The system, because of the age of these violent criminals, is not properly equipped to deal with them in the general population or inside prison and jail systems.  Often the justice system is required to treat young gang members as children despite the fact that their conduct leads to cold-blooded murders and premeditated violent attacks on elderly people just to prove themselves worthy of gang membership.

The problem of gang violence reached the attention of even The Wall Street Journal that reported U.S. Justice Department figures stating that there are “…about 800,000 gang members on the streets nationwide.”  Los Angeles leads the nation with some 100,000 gang members, the Journal reported, quoting U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O’Brien’s estimate.

Even in prison, gang-membership thrives.  Membership is often the only way for young offenders to survive in an atmosphere where life is ruled by sheer physical power.  Prison officials do not openly promote gangs in their institutions but in most cases are powerless to do anything to prevent it.  In some cases, gang activity is tacitly encouraged since it makes inmates easier to handle and a certain order rules the prison population.

Harsh reality: cons run the jails and gangs rule the cons.  Dues are paid by selling drugs on the streets.  Methamphetamine has become a drug of choice since it is readily available, but gang members traffic in heroin and cocaine as well.  Money from their crimes funds the gang organization and enriches gang leaders.

Palm Beach County (FL) Sheriff Ric Bradshaw described efforts being made to tackle gang violence in one of the largest counties by area in the United States: “Our Gang Task Force has made significant progress in a short period of time.  The problem is that we still have a lot of work to be done because of the number of gangs that exist in this county, and the state, and the fact that they are fluid and move between counties.  The Gang Task Force is moving in the right direction and is making progress.  We need the communities help, meaning the parents and the government leaders, to be successful at the end of the day,” he said.

The Gang Task Force is coordinated by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and works out of their headquarters.  “We were joined by the federal government (ATF, FBI, DEA, ICE, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office) and state government (State Attorney’s Office, Statewide Prosecutor, and Florida Department of Law Enforcement) along with members of local agencies,” Sheriff Bradshaw explained.

“We were the first county to get the statewide grand jury here to indict gangs and have taken two entire gangs off the streets.  We are working on more.  We have made over 2,000 arrests to date and have taken 700 firearms off the street,” the Sheriff added.

Understanding motivation for gang membership can give dispatchers who receive the first calls from victims, parents, friends, even gang members themselves, insight that will help talk with them.  The same insight will aid police, EMS, and fire-rescue when they respond to incidents where gang members are involved.

Mike Wallach, director of New York City-based 9-1-1 Lifeline online resource center said that there is no special training or indications for gang issues in the communications and dispatch center.  “The way calls are handled in New York City are all procedural.  PSAP is scripted.  There are 35 radio zones in the city and dispatchers rotate.  Call takers do not have local knowledge of the area at all.  A call is coded as a dispute, assault, like that.  If responders on the scene determine there is gang activity involved they can contact the Real Time Center and that center can make a referral to the Intelligence Unit and detectives from the Gang Unit can respond,” he explained.

New York City Fire Commissioner Nick Scoppetta has had experience dealing with street gang issues during his responsibility in government having served as an assistant district attorney in New York County, New York City’s deputy mayor for criminal justice, then with the Administration for Children’s Services.  “Many gang members cited the desire to increase or maintain their stature with their peers as a reason for belonging to a street gang.  There was also some who said they belonged because they had an added sense of security in their neighborhood and that they were protected from rival gangs,” he said.

“Both may be true but my sense is that the primary reason causing young people to join a street gang was peer pressure.  ‘If you are not in, you are out,’” Commissioner Scoppetta added.

Kings County, New York District Attorney Charles J. Hynes foresaw the need to create a special unit within his office to deal with gang violence and gang activities in the mid-90s.  Kings County is the official name for Brooklyn, the largest of the five boroughs that comprise the City of New York.

“I’ve had a gang bureau for 13 years,” DA Hynes said.  “We approach gang violence two ways.  If weapons are used, then it is a traditional prosecution.  We also have a gang reversal program,” he added.

Deanna Rodriguez, a 23-year veteran prosecutor in the Kings County District Attorney’s Office is chief of the gang bureau.  “I’m really proud of the boss for this.  In the mid-90s, 94 and 95, we saw cases coming in with defendants wearing colors, wearing beads.  Gang members identified themselves with beads in those days,” Rodriguez said.

“The first cases involved Latin Kings.  There were random acts of violence going on.  Everybody else in the city said it is a phase; gang activity won’t be around long.  The DA saw it as something different.  Latin Kings in state prison trickled down into city jails then onto the streets.  Then we heard of the Bloods.  There was fighting between groups.  He was the only DA in the whole state that saw it coming,” the Brooklyn DA’s gang bureau chief related.

“DA Hynes started it as a bureau with four people.  Now we have a staff of 19 including our detective-investigators that made a career of investigating gangs.  The DA hired these investigators from the New York City Police Department.  All the detectives worked in the NYPD Gang Unit. They worked significant cases in our bureau,” Rodriguez said.

“They are truly experts in gang identification, gang intelligence and know how to make cases against gangs.  We couple these detectives with trial lawyers in my bureau with years of experience,” she added.

Trial of cases involving gang members presents unique difficulties.  Not only is the crime often one of violence but there is “The innate intimidation factor of our witnesses.  They are afraid of gang retaliation.  I’ve been a prosecutor for 23 years.  This is the up-and-coming newest area of criminal justice.  As such, it is a specialty as much as homicide, sex crimes, and crimes against children.  In the criminal justice system, it is very much evolving.  In this area, we have very few experts.  In this part of the country: we’re it,” Rodriguez declared.

The gang bureau chief remains in close contact with District Attorney Hynes in connection with investigations and prosecutions.  The office has undertaken work in several areas.  When a crime is committed on the street and an arrest is made that is what the bureau considers a summary trial.  The gang bureau has an investigative component supervised by a bureau chief working under Rodriguez and three assistant DAs that conduct long- and short-term investigations.

“There is an educational component of the bureau.  We do workshops of gang awareness with parents, teachers, and students.  We educate the community on signs of gang activity.  We tell parents what to look for.  We also work with other city agencies.  We tell them what to look for as well.  There can be a danger to other agency workers.  A probation officer, for example – it is important for them to know gang memberships to prevent Bloods, Latin Kings, and Crips from showing up for probation on the same day.  A Blood will not be sent for services into a Crip territory.  We spend an inordinate amount of time, the district attorney, myself, and my bureau chief, doing appearances.  Every time we do one, we get requests for five more,” Rodriguez explained.

“We also do a program with youth that describes where the road to gang affiliation leads if they fall for the seduction of gangs.  Some gang sets talk up a good game.  A proportion of youth fall for it.  They think it’s positive and find out its negative, especially the violence and the things they do to ‘put in work,’ as gangs call it.  Committing crimes for the benefit of the gang,” Rodriguez said. 

“Defendants are getting younger and younger in the gang world … In the thirteen years the gang bureau has been here we are now prosecuting second generation gang members.  Gang members are born to gang members, being raised in a culture all about violence.  That is frightening.”

Brooklyn District Attorney Hynes created a program to intervene and try to turn around gang members.  It is called Project Re-Direct – “To re-direct youth from violence to mainstream society.  To deal with issues that may have taken them into the gang world in the first place,” the bureau chief said.

When asked if there were figures available about the number of gang members in New York, Rodriguez replied, “On any given day they say there are 30,000 gang members in New York State.  Triple that.”

Street gangs are not confined to inner city ghettos.  They exist in wealthy suburban areas and draw membership across all racial, social, and economic lines.

“In Rockland County, New York, we have three different types of gangs,” said Sheriff James Kralik said, sharing his experience as a 46-year veteran law enforcement officer.  Sheriff Kralik has served as Rockland County’s elected sheriff for 17 years. Rockland is a mostly affluent suburban area just north of New York City.  There are several large cities within the county that account for some of its “urban” problems.  “Members in the correctional facility belong to organized gangs, the Bloods, Crips, and Latin Kings.  There are gangs that organize themselves that have no national or state affiliations.  The third group is wannabes.  They are more youthful kids that are still in school.  They want to mimic older gang members.  This group can be troublesome,” Sheriff Kralik noted.

The problem of street gangs cannot be put down as simply an “urban” issue.  South Dakota’s Superintendent of the Highway Patrol Dan Mosteller, said, “One thing that is increasing, one thing that is increasing exponentially on reservations over the last few years, is gang activity.”

Thus in a state where there are vast, sparsely settled land areas, young people are drawn to gang activity.  Gang drug activity in some of the western states has taken law enforcement by surprise.  They must come to grips with organized “meth” labs that gangs operate in rural areas.

To get a handle on the problem of what takes place on the streets, correction officers gather intelligence from jails and prisons where many gang members end up.  Jim Behrens, a 21-year-veteran correction officer in the Rockland County Jail, has been assigned as an investigator to the Rockland County Intelligence Unit.  “Trouble in the jail means trouble on the street,” Behrens said.

“Officer Behrens is the person in charge of intelligence, information coming out of the jail and working with local police,” Sheriff Kralik said.  Using experienced corrections officers, alert to obtaining information about gang conduct and leadership inside the jail has led to helping law enforcement outside identify persons involved in gang violence and activities.

Officer Behrens was born in Teaneck, New Jersey and grew up in neighboring Rockland County.  He served as a New York City correction officer at Riker’s Island until he joined Rockland County in 1988.  “I dealt with prisoners knowing and not knowing they were gang members.  Chief Clark – my boss – wanted me to get involved with the intelligence unit for jail intelligence.  A colleague was working as a gang investigator for the district attorney’s office.  Sheriff Kralik knew 85% of information about gangs comes out of our prison system.  I was partnered with the DA’s detective and eventually took over the job of working street gangs and prison gangs,” Officer Behrens said.

No one person can be successful walking the tightrope in both gathering intelligence on street gangs and passing it along to police agencies.  Officer Behrens has help from experienced fellow correction officers inside the jail.  “Officers in the Rockland County Jail gave me background on the gangs.  Information comes from debriefing inmates in the jail and these experienced correction officers have a way of talking to inmates so that they confide in them,” Behrens said.  When information is obtained Behrens passes it to local police agencies in the community.

“We debrief inmates.  If they are gang members, we must put them in classification status within the jail.  Not put them in with rival gang members.  We do this so they will not get hurt,” Behrens said.  “Some are willing to talk, some not.  The jail officers have a good way of talking to people and experience in dealing with inmates,” he added.

The Rockland County Intelligence Unit defines a gang as three or more people with identifying colors, signs, or tattoos.  “They have to be doing a criminal act,” Officer Behrens explained.  “The intelligence unit has a Ten Point Criteria to identify a gang member: they admit to being one, are identified by a parent as a gang member, a police agency identifies them as a gang member, they have recognizable scars, marks, or burns as well as other criteria.”

He went on to describe what he defined as “gang mentality.”  “When debriefing some of these young men and women there is a mentality, certain things they say and do when they talk.  I can tell they are gang members not just ‘claimers.’”

 Recognition is important since the first report of gang activity may be a simple call to a 9-1-1 dispatcher of rowdy youth activity.  A few questions put to the caller might identify whether the activity is gang related or just mischief.  Passing that information along to responding police or public safety personnel can often make a big difference in the status of the call and the response directed by the agency.  Identification at the outset is important in allocating resources and preparing responders for the call.

“Training of officers has to follow with this, even to the way street gang members wear their hat.  If a call comes into 9-1-1 that reports that there is a group of kids in some area of the county, hopefully the police in that area will recognize it.  Some gang members may wear red or blue, some do not wear any colors,” Behrens explained.

Officer Behrens has asked many gang members why they involved themselves or joined gangs.  “I worked with the youth bureau when we interrogated them.  The most common answer I get is that they are looking for some type of family; they want attention, something from the gang they are not getting at home.  Some kids say, ‘It was there so I did it.’  Some kids join to be protected.  Some, because friends are involved.  Some, because of the thrill.  Most say it is because they get something they are not getting at home.”

 “What is a gang structure?  There are OGs, original gangsters or godfathers.  On the street there are ‘shot callers.’  These are the leaders in this county.  There are also suburban gangs with no defined leader.  There may be four or five guys that gather others together.  In the Bloods and Crips they have a list of who their leaders are,” Officer Behrens explained.

Even the language used by gang members is strange to an outsider.  “‘Puttin’ in work,’ it’s called – “Doing crimes.”  The more they do the more they get ranked.  They eventually establish themselves as a boss.  I was called by a local police department to interview a very young man.  His parents were there.  My job was to see if he was involved with a gang.  So, I asked him if he knew any of these OGs.  He came up with two that were in the community.  Those two were known to the police as leaders of their ‘sets.’  Sets are offshoots of a gang.  Hispanic gangs have ‘cells,’” Behrens related.

“He knew those two OGs through the gang community.  They ‘put the work in,’ and recruit,” Behrens said.

Recruitment is usually from wannabes.  “Wannabes are dangerous. They want in and will do what it takes to belong.  A ‘claimer’ wants the attention but when it comes down to it, when he has to put the work in, they won’t do it.  A wannabe will, he wants it.  They go after wannabes.  They know who to go after to recruit.  Some kids go after the leaders and ask if they can join, ‘Can I be part of a set.’”  Behrens added.

“The main thing they do is sell narcotics.  Next is home invasion.  They are into crack, marijuana; these guys sell a slew of drugs.  Some use the word gang member to put fear in the community.  I’ve been on surveillance and saw people in the community cross the street to avoid them out of fear,” Behrens said.

“Some gang members are users, some are not.  In a public housing project in Nyack, gangs were selling drugs.  A police raid recovered drugs, money, bulletproof vests.  When we interviewed them, they said they were not gang members.  Evidence we recovered, videotapes, YouTube, and MySpace accounts, showed that they put their information on the computer and they admitted gang membership in their songs and videos,” Behrens related.

“The most important thing is proper training to identify someone as a gang member.  It is also the look.  It doesn’t have to be red or blue colors.  Proper training can identify what a gang member is.  In gang culture, certain things have to do with maintaining status.  It may be beating an old man up.  One of the questions I asked the kid I interviewed was how many fights he’d been involved in before he joined the gang: zero.  After he joined the gang, he said 10.  Keeping status and keeping money coming into the gang is their motivation,” he added.

“I tell young people I interview that the only power a gang has over you is the power you give them. That’s what I tell these young kids,” Officer Behrens said.

“The gang problem is everybody’s responsibility, government, law enforcement, parents, schools.  Everybody in the community has to be aware of what’s happening around them with their children, with youth of the community”, Sheriff James Kralik aid.

“We have to be ever mindful that youth gangs can start in any community.  We have to be prepared to deal with our youth before they think about starting gang activity and offer alternatives.  Within the law enforcement community we have to take proactive and aggressive acts against gang criminality and not just stand by and wait for it to grow,” Sheriff Kralik concluded.

There are many memorials to society’s failure to deal with criminal conduct on proper principles, allowing unacceptable behaviors to destroy the quality of life among its citizens.  New York City was a prime example.  Life in all of its forms was degraded by a percentage of the population that was motivated by criminal activity.  Some of that criminal activity was tolerated, some actually encouraged by political forces that refused to recognize violent and social crimes for what they were: unlawful and unacceptable acts.

Once government concluded that the quality of life, thus the economic viability of the city itself, as large companies moved out of this financial hub, seeking suburban safe environments for their workers, it was relatively easy to allow law enforcement to “enforce” the laws.

Today street gangs control the streets through violent crime and fear.  Gang members and their leaders control the jails and prisons.  A veteran warden in the New York City correctional system said, “The cons run the jails.  We don’t.  We act as doormen.”

When criminals rule the streets and control the ultimate resource society has to deal with them, then that society must respond.  Being informed and properly trained to recognize gang-related issues at the very first report that comes across the dispatcher’s console is key to dealing with the issue at the outset.  Having correction officers and prison and jail administrators trained and equipped to handle gang activity within penal institutions is also critical at the end of the system.

Recognition that the political process cannot be allowed to interfere with the proper administration of justice is an important step in defeating gang violence.  “When we had a riot I had to call the mayor’s office first before sending in the rescue squad to protect my men and the inmates.  Then I had to wait for a response,” said the same warden, with dismay.  By the time “political” response came, it was often too late to rescue unarmed and kidnapped correction officers and protect inmates from sexual and physical abuse.  The prison riot he described, run by gang leaders, reached a stand-off.  Hostages were taken, correction officers were soaked with flammable liquid, and rescuers were threatened that the hostages would be set on fire if they tried to rush the jail.

The result of the incident the warden described was unnecessary bloodshed and hindsight that didn’t accomplish what Sheriff James Kralik insisted as an important process to prevent street gangs from gaining a foothold: “We have to be aware of what’s happening with our children.  Youth gangs can start in any community.”


John Christopher Fine is a former New York Senior Assistant District Attorney, Assistant Attorney General in Charge Organized Crime Task Force, U.S. State Department Official and Special Counsel to the U.S. Senate.  Considered a foremost authority on organized crime and political corruption, Fine, a lawyer in private practice, continues to act as a government consultant and author of magazine articles on law enforcement and crime issues.  

Read Part 3: Gang Migration: Midwest by Mikael Karlsson (includes sidebar: Europe & Gangs)

Read Part 1: The Gang Problem: West Coast - Difficult to Define & Even More Difficult to Solve by Ron Eggers



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