Suppression Programs

Intervention and suppression programs share the common goal of reducing criminal activities of gangs. Suppression programs use the full force of the law, generally through a combination of police, prosecution, and incarceration to deter the criminal activities of entire gangs, dissolve them, and remove individual gang members from them by means of prosecution and incarceration.

Following the use of gang suppression techniques in the Philadelphia CIN program, California criminal justice officials soon expanded the concept to prosecution and police programs (Klein, 1995a).

Prosecution Programs

Operation Hardcore, a prosecutorial gang suppression program, was created by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office in 1979 and still operates under the office’s Hardcore Gang Division (Genelin, 1993). It was the first prosecution program to target serious and violent juvenile gang-related offenses (Klein, Maxson, and Miller, 1995). Its distinctive features include vertical prosecution,9 reduced caseloads, additional investigative support, and resources for assisting victims.

An independent evaluation of Operation Hardcore (Dahmann, 1981) showed that fewer dismissals; more convictions/adjudications, including more convictions/adjudications on the most serious charge; and a higher rate of State prison commitments/secure confinement dispositions were achieved for cases subject to the program than for cases undergoing the normal prosecutorial process. Dahmann concluded that "these results suggest that selective prosecution has been an effective strategy in Los Angeles and that the Operation Hardcore program has obtained demonstrable improvements in the criminal justice handling of gang defendants and their cases" (Dahmann, 1981:303). Operation Hardcore remains a highly regarded program.


Police Response

Police gang suppression programs for youth and adults (Klein, 1995a) drew impetus from the apparent growth of youth and adult gang problems in the Southwest in the early 1980’s. Gang units were created in law enforcement departments to carry out gang intelligence, investigation, suppression, and prevention functions (Jackson and McBride, 1985; Klein, 1995a). Suppression tactics employed by the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD’s) Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) operations, begun in the early 1980’s, took the form of gang sweeps, hotspot targeting, and intensified patrols to apply pressure on gangs. Other terms used to characterize police suppression tactics include "saturation" of an area with police, "special surveillance" using modern technology, "zero tolerance," and "caravanning" (cruising neighborhoods in a caravan of patrol cars) (Klein, 1995a).

The most notorious gang sweep, Operation Hammer, was an LAPD CRASH operation launched in South Central Los Angeles in 1988 (Klein, 1995a). One thousand police officers swept through the area on a Friday night and again on Saturday, arresting likely gang members for a wide variety of offenses, including already-existing warrants, new traffic citations, curfew violations, gang-related behaviors, and observed criminal activities. All of those arrested (1,453 persons) were taken to a mobile booking operation adjacent to Memorial Coliseum. Most of the arrested youth were released without charges. Slightly more than half were gang members. There were only 60 felony arrests, and charges were filed in only 32 instances. "This remarkably inefficient process was repeated many times, although with smaller forces—more typically one hundred or two hundred officers" (Klein, 1995a:162).

Recent police gang suppression strategies have been more innovative. In response to high levels of violence, the Baltimore City Police Department created a Violent Crimes Division that has several units, two of which are the Handgun Recovery Squad and the Youth Violence Strike Force. Violent gang members age 24 and under are targeted because analysis of internal police data on shootings reveals that more than half of victims and suspects are in this age category. Initially, the Handgun Recovery Squad seized guns from all over the city. "This proved ineffective, however, since seizing guns had no noticeable impact on crime" (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999:98). Consequently, the squad limited its activities to targeting gangs in two hotspot areas, producing a marked decrease in handgun-related violence as evidenced by internal data collection. Handgun Recovery Squad efforts are buttressed by the Youth Violence Strike Force, which aggressively seeks to apprehend and incarcerate violent gang members by working closely with other Federal, State, and local agencies and in a team effort among police, parole, and probation officers. This initiative has not been evaluated.

St. Louis, MO, officials developed effective Consent to Search and Seize protocols in conjunction with its Firearm Suppression Program (FSP), which began in 1994 (Rosenfeld and Decker, 1996). Residential searches can be initiated by citizen requests for police service, reports from other police units, or by information gained from other investigations. Once the unit receives a report, two officers visit the residence in question, speak with an adult resident, and request permission to search the home for illegal weapons. Residents are informed that they will not be charged with the illegal possession of a firearm if they sign the Consent to Search and Seize form. In 1997, FSP was incorporated into a broader law enforcement initiative called Cease Fire (modeled after Boston's Operation Ceasefire) (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999). The St. Louis Cease Fire operation is coordinated across several law enforcement agencies and comprises three strategies:

  • A crackdown on illicit gun trafficking through ATF's gun-tracing program.

  • Swift response to acts of gang violence through intensive surveillance, youth outreach streetworkers, and social service interventions.

  • Operation Night Light (modeled after Boston's program), which teams police with probation officers in visits to the homes of youth on probation to ensure compliance with the terms of their probation. (Probation officers have the authority to enter the homes of probationers unannounced while police must have search warrants.)

One Cease Fire component, the Gang Outreach program, was launched in 1998 by the St. Louis Police Department. This effort is part of St. Louis' attempt to implement the Comprehensive Community-Wide Approach to Gang Prevention, Intervention, and Suppression program through OJJDP's SafeFutures Program.10 When a gang-involved youth is shot, counseling professionals discourage the victim from retaliating and encourage him or her to leave the gang. While the counselor is working with the victim, police make contact with the parent and, using the Consent to Search and Seize protocols, obtain permission to search the youth's home for weapons and other contraband. These new St. Louis components have not yet been evaluated.

The Los Angeles Police Department's Operation Cul de Sac (OCDS), launched in 1990, erected traffic barriers in neighborhoods in which gangs and accompanying gang crime "had spiraled out of control" (Lasley, 1998:1). OCDS was an experiment to determine whether traffic barriers could be used effectively to "design out" crime by reducing the opportunities to commit crime. The assumption underlying the experiment was that gang violence, including homicide, is partly the result of criminal opportunity. OCDS postulated that violent gang crime could be deterred because the opportunities—in this case, major roadways that facilitate entrance to and exit from high-crime neighborhoods—could be controlled. Thus, traffic barriers were used to decrease the mobility of rival gangs traveling to and from gang crime hotspots in a 10-block area. Police closed all major roads leading to and from the identified hotspots by placing freeway dividers at the end of the streets that led directly to the hotspots. This reconfiguration essentially created cul-de-sacs, which could hamper "hit-and-run" crimes such as drive-by shootings.

Lasley (1998) compared crime levels in the OCDS area before, during, and after its 2 years of operation with crime levels in a site in which OCDS did not operate. The study found that gang-related homicides and assaults in the OCDS area fell significantly during program operation and rose in the year after program cessation. Crime levels remained constant in the comparison area. It did not appear that OCDS displaced gang crime to contiguous neighborhoods. The program did not seem to have any effect on property crimes. Because this program was conducted in only one site, Lasley cautioned that these results could not be guaranteed in other communities and that further evaluations were needed to confirm the effectiveness of traffic barriers in reducing serious gang crime. A longer evaluation period is advisable because studies show that peaks and valleys in violent gang-related crimes occur at different times in different communities (Block and Block, 1993; Decker, 1996; Howell, 1999; Howell and Decker, 1999; Klein, 1995b).

Several researchers have noted that youth and adult gang problems have not decreased appreciably for a significant period of time in areas where only suppression programs have been implemented (Klein, 1995a; Moore, 1978, 1991; Spergel, 1995) and that the effectiveness of police crackdowns generally has been short-lived (Sherman, 1990).

One of the most respected law enforcement gang suppression programs for youth and adults, the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department's Operation Safe Streets (OSS), began in 1979 with the assignment of teams of gang investigators to four sheriff's station areas that were combating a tremendous amount of youth and adult gang violence (McBride, 1993). Each team identified and investigated the most active gang in its geographical area, concentrating law enforcement resources exclusively on the targeted gang and its members. These suppression activities were combined with vertical prosecution and intensive probation supervision. McBride (1993) suggested that, apart from the combination of these three elements, a key to the success of the program was the personal rapport investigators established with gang members by maintaining regular contact with them. This helped penetrate the cloak of personal anonymity, which typically helps gang members terrorize communities. At the same time, this rapport led investigators to begin seeking educational, job placement, and family counseling programs for the youth gang members. As McBride (1993:413) observed, "The investigators found that, as they applied firm but fair law enforcement and used their personal knowledge of the gang members, backed by a demonstrated humanitarian concern for the status of the individual, violence within the targeted gangs began to decline." Jackson and McBride (1985) referred to this approach as "working" gangs using traditional investigation techniques. Soon, communities in the targeted areas began to respond positively to OSS operations. McBride (1993) reported a 50-percent decrease in youth and adult gang activity.

Five gang-related programs supported by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) have shown promising results: the Antigang Initiative in Dallas, TX, and the Youth Firearms Violence Initiatives (YFVI's) in Inglewood, CA; Milwaukee, WI; Salinas, CA; and Seattle, WA. Because the last four of these programs targeted youth gun use, they have the potential to reduce gang homicide.

Antigang Initiative, Dallas, TX. In 1996 and 1997, this COPS initiative targeted five geographical areas that were home to seven of the city's most violent gangs. Three main suppression strategies were employed:

  • Saturation patrols/high-visibility patrols in target areas. These patrols stopped and frisked suspected gang members and made appropriate arrests.

  • Aggressive curfew enforcement. Ordinances were strictly enforced whenever suspected gang members were encountered.

  • Aggressive enforcement of truancy laws and regulations. Police worked in conjunction with school districts to curb truancy.

Gang unit officers teamed with community policing officers to carry out selected strategies in each of the five geographical areas.

By examining weekly and monthly police reports that documented overtime-funded activities, evaluators determined which of the three suppression strategies various Dallas police teams mainly used (Fritsch, Caeti, and Taylor, 1999). Patrol beats that had a similar number of gang-related violent offenses in a 1-year period prior to the antigang initiative were selected for comparative evaluation purposes. Gang-related violent offenses reported to the police before and during the initiative were analyzed in both target and control areas. The analysis showed that gang-related violence decreased significantly during 1996–97 in both target and control areas; however, the decrease was more substantial in targeted areas (57 percent versus 37 percent). The larger decrease in gang-related violence in targeted areas was attributed to the use of two combined strategies: aggressive enforcement of curfew, and truancy laws and regulations. Traditional (undirected) saturation patrol did not produce significant reductions when used as the main suppression strategy. The authors advise that these "results must be interpreted with caution and replicated across and within several jurisdictions before broad and definitive conclusions can be drawn about the usefulness of a particular strategy" (Fritsch, Caeti, and Taylor, 1999:129–130).

Youth Firearms Violence Initiative, Inglewood, CA. This COPS initiative sought to reduce handgun violence through the disruption of the activities of two gangs—the Crenshaw Mafia Gang and the Family Gangster Bloods—in a public housing area of West Central Los Angeles, known as "the Bottoms" (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999). A mentoring program, Rights of Passage, was implemented to fill the gap in afterschool activities from 3 to 6 p.m. Strategies Against Gang Environments (SAGE), which comprised police officers, a deputy district attorney, and a deputy probation officer, conducted saturation patrols in the target area. Buttressed by an antiloitering civil injunction against the Crenshaw Mafia Gang, SAGE officers were able to implement a proactive approach rather than wait for a crime to occur. Although the SAGE unit disbanded after YFVI funding was exhausted, the injunction against the Crenshaw Mafia Gang remains in place and is enforced through routine patrols and the police department's gang component. The police department reports that the Crenshaw Mafia Gang "has ceased to exist as an organized entity as a direct result of the civil action" and effective police enforcement (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999).

Youth Firearms Violence Initiative, Milwaukee, WI. This COPS initiative sought to deter gun carrying in high-crime hotspots (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999). Suppression components included strengthening the police department's gang crimes/intelligence unit, enhancing curfew activities, and deploying saturation patrols in high crime areas. Target areas were determined by geographic information system data that indicated a high incidence of juvenile handgun violence. Decreases in firearm-related offenses, including violent firearm offenses, have been attributed to the YFVI initiative (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999).

Youth Firearms Violence Initiative, Salinas, CA. This COPS initiative targets gang members under age 25 (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999). Its primary component is a violence suppression unit, a team of 15 police officers who use aggressive patrol strategies, including periodic surveillance, probation/patrol services, traffic stops, raids, and search warrants to recover illegal firearms used in crimes. YFVI operations are supported by a database that geographically tracks gang-related activity and firearm use. This database allows police officers to respond to inquiries regarding the location of firearm seizures, violent crimes, and gang incidents near school zones. Decreases in gun-related and violent crimes and gang presence have been attributed to YFVI operations (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999).

Youth Firearms Violence Initiative, Seattle, WA. The overall goal of this COPS initiative was to reduce youth firearm violence through targeted and focused enforcement efforts (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999). This YFVI comprised several components: the Seattle Team for Youth, which is still in existence, provides intensive services for youth who were in gangs or were otherwise at risk of gang involvement; deployment of school-emphasis patrol officers to work in various prevention, intervention, and school safety projects; and school enforcement teams of officers who worked closely with school administrators to reduce youth firearm violence. A key component of the Seattle YFVI was the creation of a system for tracking the city's 50 most violent juveniles, many of whom were affiliated with gangs. Police and probation officers were paired to increase surveillance of these juveniles and to enforce probation conditions. In addition, enhanced prosecution was instituted. An overall increase in arrests for weapons violations and a decline in weapons violations in the Seattle schools during the life of the program have been reported (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999).

Weisel and Painter (1997) have provided detailed case studies of police responses to youth and adult gang problems in Austin, TX; Chicago, IL; Kansas City, MO; Metro Dade County, FL; and San Diego, CA. These sites were selected for the severity of their youth and adult gang and drug problems, for regional diversity, for ethnic variation in gang problems, and for variations in their approaches to local gang problems. These case studies are unique in their long-term perspective, providing a view of how each police department's approach changed over a 5-year period, from 1991–92 to 1996. Three issues guided the studies: events that stimulated each police department to respond to existing youth and adult gang problems, key aspects of each police department's strategic response, and outcomes in each jurisdiction.

Several conclusions can be drawn from the Weisel and Painter case studies with respect to youth and adult gangs:

  • Ethnic variation in gang membership was a distinguishing characteristic in all of the studied sites. Although a particular ethnic group predominated in most gangs, the observed trend was toward racially mixed gangs.

  • The types of criminal activity varied widely from gang to gang and from one site to another. According to the authors, "In some places, gang activity, drug activity and weapons violations are nearly synonymous terms; in other areas of the same city, the nexus may be much looser, with drug activity peripheral to other criminal activity. In other areas, drug usage is merely a recreational activity of gang members" (Weisel and Painter, 1997:77).

  • Police in the five sites consistently reported gangs to be less structured and organized than they had previously believed. Those Chicago gangs that are highly structured and extensively involved in drug trafficking are the exception, not the rule.

  • Police responses varied as much as the nature of gang problems. Their responses also changed: from an approach emphasizing suppression, intelligence gathering, and investigation in 1991 to a more comprehensive approach in 1996 that integrated investigations, intelligence gathering, prevention, community policing, and enforcement activities in a collaborative effort with community organizations.

  • With notable exceptions, most patrol officers had received no training in how to identify gang activity. Consequently, their reports yielded inconsistent and unreliable data. Differences in reporting guidelines and disparity in gang definitions also produced wide variations in the quality of reporting on gang incidents.

  • The police departments studied lacked uniform methods for determining the effectiveness of their antigang efforts. Despite the absence of evidence regarding effectiveness, however, "it appears that specific strategies used by police agencies work best when targeted at specific behaviors, locations, and individuals" (Weisel and Painter, 1997:89).

Geomapping and Tracking Systems

Recent technological advances in police tracking and management of gang crime include computer mapping, object-oriented databases, management information systems, and offender identification and tracking (Fritsch, Caeti, and Taylor, 1999). The mayor of Houston, TX, instituted an Anti-Gang Office and Task Force in the early 1990's that developed a computerized gang geomapping and tracking system to identify the location of gangs and gang-related gun violence and the location of existing youth program resources (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999). Hotspots of gang activity and necessary youth services are linked through this information system. The Gang Education Awareness Resistance program, a partnership between the Anti-Gang Office, the school district, and two police departments, helps schools with gang-related security problems. The Gang Prevention Program of the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans provides legal education and a wide range of services for at-risk youth. A regional gang-related information tracking system is serving more than 50 Houston area law enforcement agencies. Although it has not been evaluated, the Anti-Gang Office and Task Force is a promising city-level management initiative.

The Chicago, IL, Police Department has constructed one of the most accessible and easy-to-use tracking programs in the Nation. Called the Information Collection for Automated Mapping (ICAM) program, it uses computerized mapping to help police track criminal activity in neighborhoods. Combined with geocoding (which verifies addresses and links to other geographic information), computer mapping software can combine data sets to provide a multidimensional view of gang crime and its potential contributing factors (see Block and Block, 1993, for illustrations of the kind of information that can be compiled with this system).

The Orange County, CA, Gang Incident Tracking System (GITS) is another type of gang information system that supports not only intelligence and gang crime reporting functions, but also evaluation of community interventions (Vila and Meeker, 1997). Twenty-two independent cities and the Orange County Sheriff Coroner's Department report to a centralized database. Geographical information software is used to analyze the GITS data, generating geomaps of gang crimes and the residency of gang members. An analysis of more than 7,500 arrests from 1995 to 1998 showed that adults were involved in 46 percent more violent arrests than juveniles and that a much larger proportion of adult arrests were for a violent crime (Wiebe, Meeker, and Vila, in press). The researchers concluded that adult gangs in Orange County committed more serious crime than juvenile gangs.

Identification of Gang Members

Determining a particular individual's gang involvement is as difficult as identifying true youth gangs. In many instances, a youth may associate occasionally with a gang, participate episodically in the activities of a gang, or desire gang membership without actually being a member. Likewise, many youth leave gangs by drifting out, gradually dissociating themselves. Because severe criminal sanctions can be applied to gang membership in certain jurisdictions, a valid determination is important. The National Drug Intelligence Center (1995) recommended that investigators use these criteria (any one of which qualifies the individual) for determining whether a youth is a gang member:
  • The individual admits membership in a gang (i.e., self-reported).

  • A law enforcement agency or reliable informant identifies an individual as a gang member.

  • An informant of previously untested reliability identifies an individual as a gang member, and this information is corroborated by an independent source.

  • The individual resides in or frequents a particular gang's area and adopts its style of dress, use of hand signs, symbols, or tattoos; maintains ongoing relationships with known gang members; and has been arrested several times in the company of identified gang members for offenses consistent with usual gang activity.

  • There is reasonable suspicion that the individual is involved in a gang-related criminal activity or enterprise.

Determining gang membership of youth brought into the juvenile justice system may be more problematic because of a lack of information in their official records. In a national assessment, Spergel and Curry (1993) surveyed juvenile justice and social service agencies to identify the criteria used to distinguish between gang and nongang members. Agencies used nine different methods that fell into two categories (the percentage of respondents using each criterion is indicated in parentheses):

Direct Observation or Agency Information

  • Symbols/symbolic behavior (51 percent).

  • Self-admission (47 percent).

  • Association with gang members (39 percent).

  • Type of criminal behavior (34 percent).

  • Location or residence (14 percent).
Reports of Membership From Other Agencies or Individuals

  • Police identification (42 percent).

  • Informant identification (40 percent).

  • Other legal identification (19 percent).

  • Other institutional identification (16 percent).

Recently, gang suppression tactics have been expanded in three directions: (1) collaborative approaches that tie together all sectors of the community; (2) State laws that increase criminal sanctions for gang crime and gang involvement, and local ordinances and enforcement of specific criminal codes that restrict gang activities; and (3) multiagency and multijurisdictional approaches that bring together several law enforcement agencies. These strategies are discussed in the sections that follow.

9 The prosecutor who files a case remains responsible for it throughout the prosecution process.

10 For more information on the Comprehensive Community-Wide Approach, see the related section. The SafeFutures Program assists six different communities, St. Louis among them, with "existing collaboration efforts to reduce youth violence and delinquency . . . [and] also seeks to improve the service delivery system by creating a continuum of care responsive to the needs of youth and their families" (Kracke, 1996).


Youth Gang Programs and Strategies
OJJDP Summary
August 2000