November 01, 2005

Book assesses effectiveness of police gang units

by K.C. Jaehnig


Vincent J. Webb

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- When police departments set up special units to deal with gangs, they — and the taxpayers — don't always get what they pay for.

Vincent J. Webb, director of the Center for the Study of Crime, Delinquency & Corrections at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and Charles M. Katz, associate professor of crime, justice and criminology at Arizona State University, spent three years studying police gang units in four Western cities.

They found that, for the most part, those units — usually housed in out-of-the-way locations — functioned almost like little gangs of their own with a culture that differed from that of the larger departments. Officers generally had no training or assigned duties and little supervision, and they often had relatively little to do with gang members. What contacts they did have — citing gang members for jaywalking, for example — did not lead to gang "control" and even got in the way of producing useful "street" information.

"Gangs do remain a problem in jurisdictions throughout the country, and therefore they warrant a continued response on the part of police," the two concluded in a book titled "On Their Own: Policing Gangs in America" that will be released by Cambridge University Press in January.

"The challenge becomes one of reassessing present patterns of response and adjusting them to attain the highest possible level of effectiveness."

The past 25 years have produced what Webb termed "tremendous growth" in police gang units.

"Fifty-six percent of all departments with 100 or more officers have an identifiable gang unit," he said. "They were established rapidly to parallel the perceived growth of gangs in this country, but they've not been studied before in any systematic way."

As part of their study, Webb and Katz analyzed police documents; interviewed departmental commanders and other administrators, gang unit officers, various players in the criminal justice system and members of the community; and hung out with two gang units as they went about their daily tasks.

"In our book we reach a series of conclusions and make some policy recommendations that we hope the law enforcement community will take into consideration," Webb said.

"We also hope some of this information will find its way into broader discussion because I think the community is expecting more out of gang units than they're going to get."

For their study, underwritten by the National Institute of Justice (the research arm of the federal justice department), Webb and Katz focused on gang units in Albuquerque, N.M., Inglewood, Calif. (a Los Angeles suburb), Las Vegas, Nev., and Phoenix, Ariz.

"Though they're not what you would call ‘gang cities,' they have established histories of having gangs, and there was a fair amount of data available on them," Webb said.

The researchers found tremendous variation in the size of the gang units. Las Vegas, with a population of 478,000, had the largest unit with 41 officers. Inglewood, with a population of around 112,000, had only four. Albuquerque, similar in size to Las Vegas, had nine officers, while Phoenix, nearly three times as populous as Las Vegas, had 39.

"This variation didn't seem to be related to gang crime, number of gang members or population," Webb said.

With the exception of Inglewood, where the unit was housed within the larger department, gang units had secret locations several miles away from the regular forces, with special keys and access codes. They didn't have much to do with other officers, and they didn't have to perform regular police duties — they didn't even have to respond to calls that didn't interest them.

"Instead, the gang units that we observed allowed their officers to engage in buffet-style policing, picking and choosing what to do and when to do it," the authors wrote.

What they chose —again, with the exception of Inglewood — was mostly enforcement, with officers spending two to three hours daily on it during an eight-hour shift. Yet for all that activity, the Las Vegas officers averaged three "contacts" or "stops" per shift, while the other two averaged slightly more than one.

"When you think about the number of estimated gang members, this is a small percentage," Webb said. "If ‘stops' are an important part of dealing with gangs, these units aren't doing very much of it."

Nor did the stops lead to control or reduction of crime. In fact, in Las Vegas, only 30 percent of the stops resulted in arrest; in Phoenix, that rate dwindled to 11 percent.

Although those outside the gang units — other police officers, prosecutors, community groups and the like — wanted hard information from the units on gang members and their activities, only the Inglewood unit, set up specifically to supply such intelligence, delivered.

In fact, the emphasis on enforcement actually got in the way in the other three cities. Disrespect, bogus stops and other aggressive behaviors cost the gang units the trust needed to gather solid information.

In addition, gang unit officers seemed uninterested — and in Las Vegas, almost hostile — to the idea of sharing the information they did have with regular patrol units, others in the criminal justice system or community groups.

"The picture that emerges is that these units are highly autonomous," Webb said.

"You start to understand some of the problems with gang units (for example, a member of Chicago's gang unit accused of drug trafficking) where they have developed into a culture within a larger culture."

The researchers believe police departments could do several things to make their gang units more effective.

"One is to develop organizational models to integrate them into the patrol —bring them into closer contact, perhaps by dispersing them within different patrol districts," Webb said.

The researchers also think departments would do well to take Inglewood as their model. Bring units in house and focus on intelligence.

"Everything tells us that what people want is good intelligence, and the best source of that is the guys out on the street. If the unit officers are housed out and away and not interacting, you're not going to get that," Webb said.

"You also need to pay more attention to intelligence. Inglewood does a good job of that because it's all their officers do: update intelligence. If it's not up-to-date and easy to access, no one's going to use it."

Lastly, the authors recommend that training in community policing problem-solving approaches could improve matters greatly.

"In large cities gang units are tremendously outnumbered by gangs and gang members, and typical suppression strategies have limited potential as the principal police response to gangs," the authors concluded.

"Gang units, like other police units, need to become ‘smarter,' and one way to do this is to emphasize formal problem solving carried out by gang units in collaboration with other core police units, especially patrol."

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.