Bureau of Justice Assistance
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Creating a Police Gang Unit

The complexity of gang problems—territorial concerns, informant reliability, general neighborhood safety, and drugs that are sold in or near school zones—calls for a special police unit. However, for a police gang unit to be successful, several factors need to be explored before its creation so that the unit sustains support for its unique mission over time. The police gang unit should:

  • Be small and self-contained—having its own office space, vehicles, informant funds, overtime—and its mission should be to attack gangs that use violence, whether that violence is murder or aggravated assault.

  • Operate in close conjunction with the homicide unit, where patterns of violence are best detected. However, the gang unit should not be part of the homicide unit because the constantly shifting demands created by the reactive nature of the homicide unit would draw on the limited resources of the gang unit and reduce its effectiveness.

    In BPD, a suggestion was made to incorporate the gang unit in the Inspectional Services Division, which had a command structure that could absorb a new unit without significant change in the overall departmental organization. Also, the Inspectional Services Division was able to access information from the criminal investigation units without arousing jealousy—a plus for a unit that must investigate matters that cross conventional lines.

  • Partner with a prosecution team so that the most effective tool—the grand jury—can be fully employed. The thrust of the investigation is to convert alienated gang members, and only the prosecutor can guarantee specific legal arrangements that affect whether crimes will be prosecuted.

  • Have a liaison with designated district units, because a considerable amount of investigative time is directed toward gangs' street activities. After targets are ascertained and information is developed, the district unit should be informed to take advantage of the chance occurrences that involve district officers. In addition, district officers should have the opportunity to learn the value of developing and recording information.

BPD generated large numbers of arrests to maintain statistical indicators of its impact. Unfortunately, this caused street-level information to dry up because the frequent interruptions made offenders wary. Thus, the department was without data that had been routinely obtained from offenders and informants and that was necessary to assess gang problems and initiate solutions.6

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