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Gang Violence – a 9-1-1 Magazine Special Report – Part 3

The Gang Problem: Gang Migration - Midwest (Part 3 of 3)

Author: Mikael Carlsson

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

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The concluding segment of 9-1-1 Magazine’s special 3-part report on Gang Violence and Public Safety, intended for our suspended Jan/Feb 2010 issue, appears below. The first two segments, covering West Coast and East Coast issues, appeared in our Sep/Oct and Nov/Dec 2009 issues.

Photos by the Author

Inner city gang thugs moving from the cities and literally raping, pillaging, and plundering rural America’s smaller cities. Like locusts moving from one town to the next, leaving nothing but crime ridden and drug infested cities now mere shadows of their former selves in the wake of the gangsters leaving and those staying behind – like enemy troops on occupied territory.


Female gang member aiming down the sights on a .357 Magnum.
Female gangs are a growing phenomena across the United States.
Lately gang investigators have also found that more and more gangs
are becoming “mixed” as far as member gender is concerned.

There was a fear during the late 1990s and early 2000s that the criminal youth gangs would spread north and west through the nations’ heartland like wildfire, or an invasion of fire ants. Small cities and communities would be over-run, it was feared, by organized gangs with a well-conceived “plan of attack.” Gang members would be sent out like scouts, settlers, and soldiers taking over city, after city, community, after community.Obviously this didn’t happen.

Does this mean the problem doesn’t exist? No, afraid not. “Gang Migration” isn’t easy to define.

Is it “gang migration” if Johnny who is a member of a Kansas City youth gang moves with his mom and little brother to a smaller Midwestern town [partly because Johnny’s mother wants her boy away from all the violence, drugs and other vices of the larger cities] where they settle. Johnny still “claims” that he indeed is a big, bad gangster but in reality has nothing to do at all with his former “associates?”

Is it “gang migration” if Johnny who is a member of a Kansas City youth gang moves with his mom and little brother to a smaller Midwestern town [partly because Johnny’s mother wants her boy away from all the violence, drugs and other vices of the larger cities] where they settle. Johnny still “claims” his gang and he continues his crimes, albeit at a much smaller scale?

Is it “gang migration” if Johnny who is a member of a Kansas City youth gang moves with his mom and little brother to a smaller Midwestern town because the leader of Johnny’s gang ordered and financed the move. Johnny was sent out with the explicit task to “scout” the new community and establish a beachhead for additional gang members to follow at a later date? Yes, that would certainly be classified as at the very least the beginning phase of gang migration.

Fact is that members of youth gangs move from the bigger cities to smaller cities, smaller and even rural communities. Why? The truth is that there is no easy answer to that question either.

Below: Two detectives in civilian clothing are making a felony vehicle stop.
A call to dispatch told the detectives that the registered owner of the vehicle
had several felony warrants for his arrest. Allegedly, slightly more than one
pound of heroin was located in the vehicle.

“It’s clear that members from big city gangs move out to smaller communities. There are no doubt about that,” David Starbuck – former sergeant at the Kansas City, MO PD Gang Squad and currently representing the Midwest Gang Investigator’s Association told 9-1-1 Magazine. “This is a big problem nation-wide: Especially to local law enforcement in the communities that are affected by the gang migration. Education of local law enforcement agencies is the answer but it’s a matter of manpower and time. There’s a lot of educating to do in not very much time.”

One of the many problems, according to Starbuck, is that law enforcement as well as counties and local governments, are stuck in an old way of thinking that is no longer relevant.

“When modern era gangs first emerged they were very strict according to racial and territorial lines. It was very rare to see Hispanic members in traditionally African-American gangs and vice-versa. This is no longer the case to the same extent, especially outside the big cities” Starbuck says and continues:

“Now we see a lot of mixed gangs. Mainly as far as ethnicity goes but there are also more gangs that have both male and female members and that used to be highly unusual”.

Law enforcement in big cities already knows that gangs aren’t what they used to be in more ways than one. Very few gangs “wear colors” these days – meaning that members of the Bloods doesn’t necessarily wear red only, while members of the Crips aren’t all decked out in blue. From a law enforcement officer's perspective, this makes it harder to identify gang-members on sight alone.

“The key to successfully deal with street gangs from a law enforcement perspective is knowledge. That is why it’s essential for small law enforcement agencies to keep ahead of the gangs with training and educating of officers and investigators. Learn the meaning of tattoos, tags, graffiti and other typical gang related means of communication with other gangs and with the local population,” states Dave Starbuck and continues: “For rural law enforcement agencies it can seem to be an almost impossible task to keep up with the training and learning required to stay on top of the gangs. The Midwest Gang Investigator’s Association is an excellent source of information I hope all rural agencies affected by gangs in their area use.”

Midwest Gang Investigators Association can be found on the Internet at Anther gang information resource on the Internet is the website of the National Association of Gang Investigators and they can be found at Both these web sites are highly informative and can – and should – be used by law enforcement to learn as much as possible about gangs in their area.

A great source of information about gangs in your area can be the local and or state prisons/jails. Typically tattoos indicating street gang membership are well documented during the booking process. Typically the Department of Corrections, or similar, are more than willing to share this type of information with local law enforcement. Many of the larger institutions will have one or several COs working with gang intelligence inside the institution and these individuals can be a wealth of information about how various gangs co-operate, or not, on the inside.

As with any intelligence gathering operation analyzing the information is critical. It is crucial that smaller, rural departments and agencies get access to both the funding and manpower the analysis of the raw data demands to turn it into useful information that ultimately will be of great benefit to the inhabitants of the areas/counties in question.

“Gang migration is a very real problem and the sooner everyone understands the significance of this, the easier it will be for law enforcement to act before the street gangs gets too well rooted in their new communities” says Dave Starbuck and continues:

Above: Police Officer in Kansas City, MO, PD is using
his cellular phone to contact dispatch about some
sensitive information he wants to have confirmed
about an individual he has just pulled over.

“Some of the things we have found can be reasons for gang migration are:

  • Increased pressure and presence from law enforcement in areas where gangs are active.
  • Higher prices (for everything from housing to drug supply) is expensive in the big cities and can often be found at a much lower price in smaller, rural communities.
  • Asian street gangs seem to be more transient by nature and often move from city to city without any easily detectable plan.
  • While Asian street gangs aren’t a huge problem in the Midwest, Hispanic gangs are. I would say that currently, Hispanic gangs are the biggest problem for law enforcement in the Midwest as far as street gangs are concerned.
  • Take MS13 as an example. They are indeed a highly transient street gang, actively recruiting new members, often in a mix of undocumented youths from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras just to give a few examples.”

It is here worth mentioning that David Starbuck co-wrote a Juvenile Justice Bulletin put out by OJJDP in December of 2001. The bulletin is still very much an up to date source of information about street gangs, how they think, why they do what they do and I can’t recommend I warmly enough. The other writers were James C. Howell and Donna J. Lindquist and can be found on the DOJ Publications web site. Search for the title “Hybrid and Other Modern Gangs” and download a free PDF of the bulletin.

There are over 14,000 police departments in the United States with less than 24 officers each. How can organizations that small – as far as “boots on the ground” – stand up to seasoned gang leaders who move from the inner cities to get away from a more and more sophisticated PD?

In my little Nebraska county there is a countywide task force that handles all high-risk search warrants and similar events where more manpower is needed. Saline County Crisis Intervention Team is the name of this task force and it’s made up of the county Sheriff’s Office as well as two of the PDs in the county. SCCIT has proven itself worth of the difficult tasks it has dealt with over the years and is now a well-training, well-coordinated and well-equipped force to be reckoned with.

Having covered organized crime and criminal organizations both in Europe and other parts of the world, two particular details strike me as unique with American street gangs. One, is the very young – not to say tender – age of many of the gang members. Two, the willingness to go to extreme violence at the drop of a hat as a perfectly normal solution to problems that in other countries often would have been discussed and solved by gang leaders over a drink or two.

From a law enforcement perspective this has little relevance. But, the more dispatchers know and understand about local gangs, their symbols and graffiti, the better it is, if for nothing else than the very simple reason that they then can dispatch the correct units to respond to individual situations.

Hence, dispatchers need education and training on street gangs too. Perhaps not as critical and advanced as first responders who deal with situations in the field, but the more the dispatchers understand about gangs in their community, the more likely it is that dispatchers will be able to ask callers the correct question and be able to forward this information to the units they are dispatching to the scene of the incident.

Dispatch center at the Saline County Sheriff’s Office. The SCSO handles
dispatching from smaller cities and towns nearby as well as taking 911 calls.
There are days when the dispatchers are extremely busy. SCSO recently added
on an additional 60 beds in their jail. The total numbers of beds are now well
over 100. The U.S Marshall’s Service rent space from the jail for federal inmates
that are serving time at Leavenworth or any other close by facility, and have a
court appearance in Lincoln, Nebraska.

As the issue of street gangs, migration and otherwise, grow in the United States, one of the best tools we could build for the law enforcement community would be a database consisting of three main fields of information:

  • A photo gallery of known gang tattoos and their symbolism.
  • A gallery of gang graffiti and the symbolism it represents.
  • A gallery with mugshots and personal information such as gang affiliation, known associates etc of the most prolific gang leaders in the United States.

A fourth component that would make such a system even more efficient is a similar database covering the correctional institutions in the country. Many prison gang s are said to control street gangs outside the walls and combining intelligence efforts in these areas can only be a positive thing.

Sergeant Jay Pruetting is currently heading up the Kansas City, MO, Police Department Gang Squad. “Exchange of information between different agencies in different cities is still, and always will be, extremely important, gang migration or not,” says Sgt Pruetting. “In a large city like Kansas City there are more units, departments and agencies that fight streets gangs aside from us. Only when we all work together on state, local, and federal levels will we have a good chance to stay one step ahead of the gangs and beat them back.”

Speaking from personal experience after having been privileged to go on a large number of ride-alongs with KCPD Gang Squad as well as the Tactical Units of the Street Narcotics Unit I have nothing but admiration for these men and women. They are dedicated professionals who work diligently to make the Midwest a safer place for us all.

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Gang Violence: The Rural impact

Crete Police Department is located roughly 30 miles southwest of Lincoln, the Capital City of Nebraska. Crete is a fairly typical rural community with a small police force, 6,000-ish inhabitants.

“There’s no doubt that we’ve seen the signs of gang migration in and around Crete,” says Sergeant Chad Menagh who is the lead investigator at Crete PD for anything related to gangs and continues:

“While we’ve been fortunate that the majority of our gang crimes have been property or simple assault related, our rural community has not been immune to gang related violence. We must continue to impact gang activity through a multi-faceted approach aimed at reducing gang membership and gang violence.”

Crete PD is doing everything right as far as educating its officers and staff to keep an eye out and what to keep an eye out for. The real question is if this will be enough in a future where street gang leaders feel the heat from big city PDs burn their backsides and they want to flee out to the countryside.

Above: Female Police Officer with the Crete, Nebraska PD sitting in her patrol car and using a handheld PDA to receive sensitive information from dispatch. Sensitive information is almost always communicated by e-mail to PDAs, BlackBerrys etc or by calling the officers cell phone. This largely prevent members of the public from listening in – compared to a few years ago all you had to do was to buy a police scanner.

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Europe and Gangs

Criminal street gangs are no longer an exclusive American issue. Europe is facing a growing number of gangs as well as organized crime groups.

The most common, and perhaps well-known, gangs in Europe are Hells Angels and Bandidos MC. Both organizations have chapters and hang-arounds in many European countries and cities. It is also in these groups we see the largest movement of gang members between various countries in and outside the European Union. In Europe, the biker-gangs are often involved in fraudulent extortion, “debt collection”, and other kinds of crime that can best be described as white-collar crimes.

Above: Swedish riot police controlling a left-wing extremist during a demonstration in southern Sweden.
These demonstrations often end up with the demonstrators throwing rocks, eggs, and pretty much
anything that isn’t nailed down at the police. From a law enforcement perspective, demonstrations
like this one is a good opportunity  to arrest the instigating gang-members and get them identified,
fingerprinted and DNA entered into the system.

It is obvious that the European biker gangs are extremely influenced by their US brethren. Patches, vests, rockers etc all look the same in Europe as they do in the United States. The cities on the bottom rockers are different though naturally.

Other gangs that work on a multinational level are typically tight knit ethnic gangs, often with roots in ex-Yugoslavia, Russia or former Soviet republics. Often these gangs are made up of immigrants and nationals and they typically target only one country. According to sources within Europol – the European equivalent of the FBI – the migration rate in these specific gangs are often non-existent as far as the leaders go, but very frequent as far as foot-soldiers go. Migration is made easier by the fact that as a EU-citizen you do not need a passport to travel to countries within the EU. If crimes are minor there are no extradition between countries. This means that a gang member can be wanted for narcotic trafficking in Sweden but by moving to France he might be able to completely avoid charges, unless he goes back to Sweden and the police there apprehend him.

Prison gangs with any real structure were pretty much unheard of in Europe up until ten or so years ago. These days they flourish and they model themselves after the prison gangs in the United States. These too are modeled after the prison gangs in the United States. Often ethnical in nature and often extremely violent, or at least with a rumor that suggest they would response with violence if needed.

Gang migration in Europe as such pose a problem for dispatchers and police in general because unlike the United States, the nations that make up the European Union all have different languages. Interpreters are the solution even though most EU citizens speak multiple languages. Adding interpreters adds one more step in the dispatching procedure and this of course adds time. Streamlining is always an issue and with technology continuously advancing there are high hopes for an automated translation system in the not so distant future.

Mikael Karlsson covered organized crime throughout Europe for a number of years on contract with several national Swedish newspapers and magazines. Karlsson has reported from the Middle East, Northern Ireland, and other hotspots. Since 1998 he works in the United States. As a photographer he is often contacted by national US book publishers to provide contemporary photos for a wide variety of textbooks. Karlsson also does forensic photography for his local sheriff's office and local PDs. Samples of his work can be found at 

Read Part 2: The Gang Problem: East Coast, by John C. Fine

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



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