Chapter 21, Section 7

Gang Violence

Abstract: This chapter will provide students with a basic understanding of gang-related violence and victim assistance. Students are presented with a psychological and sociological model of a typical gang member and gang. The course will discuss why gangs form, gang membership, law enforcement intervention/suppression programs, and prevention efforts. Victims' rights and needs -- which have unique aspects when perpetrators are gang members -- are also examined, with components of a model victim advocacy approach offered.

Learning Objectives: Upon completing this chapter, students will understand the following concepts:

  1. The role of psychology and sociology in efforts to better understand the gang phenomena and why youth join gangs.
  2. Sociological characteristics commonly found in gang members.
  3. Law enforcement and social service strategies to prevent gang membership.
  4. Characteristics that are unique to victims of gang violence
  5. The impact of gang crime on victims.
  6. Recommendations for a model victim advocacy approach to meet the needs of victims and witnesses of gang-related crime.

Statistical Overview

The preliminary findings of the first ever nationwide survey of gang activity, the 1995 National Youth Gang Survey, were released on June 20, 1996. The survey was conducted by the National Youth Gang Center under the direction of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The survey found:

Other gang-related statistics include the following:


The problem of youth gangs is reaching a critical point in many communities today. The cost to individual victims resulting from drive-by shootings, assault, property damage, drug-related violence, and robberies is felt in all urban communities, as well as many suburban and rural communities today. Communities are affected as they struggle to pay for the costs of law enforcement strategies to combat the operation and spread of gang violence. No one can place a dollar amount on the loss of life and the physical and emotional sufferings experienced by victims. Thousands of our youth are irreparably harmed by the violent and criminal activity that is condoned and encouraged by gang membership. Most disturbing is the increasing trend for gangs to recruit children as young as seven eight years of age.

Defining Gangs

Gangs are defined differently by researchers and criminal justice professionals. A statutory definition of "gang" is:

An on-going, organized association of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, who have a common name or common signs, colors or symbols, and members or associates who individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in criminal activity (Conly, 1993).

In other words, according to law enforcement, a gang is any group gathered together on a continuing basis to commit anti-social behavior.

The Sociology of Street Gangs

Street gangs begin for myriad social and economic reasons. Two of the most common reasons youth join gangs are:

In recent years, street gangs have been observed in middle-class areas, but close scrutiny of these gangs, in general, reveals that the nucleus for gang formation is still found in the families' instability. In many cases, the families have moved from gang-infested neighborhoods, due to an improved socioeconomic condition, and simply transferred a hardened street gang member to virgin turf.


There are a variety of reasons why youth join or become members of street gangs.

At one time, most youth joined gangs due to economic depravity. Most gangs that originated in "ghetto" areas would commit crimes, such as burglary or robbery, to buy food and other essentials for survival. Poverty is still prevalent in those areas, and many youth join to relieve their desperate circumstances. Others join for the imaginary riches that narcotic trafficking supposedly delivers at the end of the rainbow.

Some join gangs because of peer group pressure, or because it is just the popular thing to do. Often times, a person joins a gang for protection against rival gangs. If an individual grows up in a gang neighborhood, the people he or she associates with, goes to school with, and possibly even his or her parents, are members of the gang. So it is understandable, in some cases, that a person may become a member of a given gang merely because everyone in the neighborhood is, and he or she knows it only as a common practice or thing one is supposed to do.

"Jumping In"

The transformation of a youth into a gang member does not take place overnight, of course, but involves a slow assimilation. Older members informally observe the development of the "recruit" and gradually allow him or her to associate with the gang. Once the gang member reaches an age where he or she can prove himself or herself to peer leaders within the gang structure, he or she may perform some sort of rite of passage or ceremony which officially recognizes his or her full membership. This process is called "jumping in." In many instances jumping in rites of passage are extremely violent and may involve the beating of the prospective gang member and that recruit's performing some violent crime against another person. Alternately, members may be "courted in," where they are simply accepted into the gang and do not have to prove themselves in any particular way.

Gang Activity

Gang activity on school campuses is evidenced by various indicators. Acts of vandalism, arson and graffiti painting, although secretive in nature, are often considered gang involved. Stabbings and shootings between rival gangs take a toll on innocent students and teachers. Student extortion and teacher intimidation also exist.

Gang activity, when viewed from a law enforcement perspective, is a study in violent crime. A perpetual cycle of violence has been established within the street gang milieu. Gang rivalries dating back many years exist. As new generations of gang members enter the mainstream, they are taught to hate their rivals as vehemently as their predecessors. In conversations with gang members, investigators have found that many times they do not know the reasons they originally became rivals of a particular gang. They only know of the more recent incidents. One gang member stated, "I don't know why we fight them. We've fought 'em since my father's time."

With this mentality affecting the socialization and personality growth of a child, it is easy to see why conventional law enforcement techniques are difficult to apply to street gangs. Many street gang members see their violent behavior toward rivals as a legitimate endeavor.

Gang Violence

In a recent survey of high school students in Seattle, Washington, gang members were nearly three times as likely as non-gang members to report that obtaining a gun was easy. In response to the survey, more than half of the gang members reported owning a gun, while just four percent of non-gang members gave the same response.

Conly recently reported the account of a former gang member who testified before a public hearing on gang violence in Dallas, Texas:

"It's real easy (for teenagers to get guns). You just have to have the money, and know somebody who can get one. Most gang members have . . . it's probably related to a drug dealer. They contact the drug dealer and tell him, 'I pay so much for a gun.'. . . A .12 gauge sawed-off would run, like, about 50 to 90 bucks. Nobody really ever buys a gun over 50 unless it's fully automatic."

In recent years, gangs have been able to acquire automatic and semi-automatic guns. These have been used in drive-by shootings which have become a trademark of gang violence. With the introduction of such powerful and destructive weapons, the nature of the violence between gangs has changed since the 1970s. Spergel and others point to the increase in weaponry and mobility as major reasons for the increase in violence, especially homicide. The ability to "hit and run" has made attacks easier to accomplish and more deadly.

Law Enforcement Strategies to Target Gangs

Numerous law enforcement organizations across the country have developed specialized gang units to combat the problem of gang crime and violence. The traditional law enforcement approach has been:

Experience shows that incapacitation of individual gang members is not sufficient to control gang crime because removing individuals does not diminish the influence of the gang on the street. In addition, gangs have learned the procedural differences between juvenile and adult court and have used these to their advantage. Since gangs consist of both juvenile and adult members, gangs have come to use juveniles extensively in the commission of crimes. This ensures lenient penalties for adjudicated juvenile offenders.

Some police departments, such as Oxnard, California, have developed special gang units that target gang members and attempt to reduce over labeling. They have defined gang membership more narrowly and are targeting hard-core gang members with serious violent criminal histories. The program aims at stiffer penalties if a convicted gang member on probation associates with known gang members. A key feature of the approach is the sharing of information with all officers that is likely to lead to an arrest and conviction of the most serious members.

Community-oriented policing has also been used in communities with known gang problems. For example, in Reno, Nevada, the department's primary emphasis has been on peripheral gang members, or "wannabes," and their parents. Officers work with parents to inform them that the child or youth is associating with gang members and assist parents in obtaining social services as needed. Through these methods officers have gained the confidence of parents and have been successful in working cooperatively with them to prevent gang involvement.

Some consistent themes tend to emerge when discussing effective responses to gangs and gang violence. They are:

In addition, concern has been widely expressed regarding victim and witness services in cases involving gang violence. Intimidation of witnesses is reported to be a serious problem in most metropolitan areas, and the use of escort services as a method of witness protection has been suggested.


The goal of prevention programs is to reduce the appeal of gangs as a vehicle for enhancing self-esteem, receiving recognition, achieving financial independence and receiving protection. Programs sponsored in the community generally attempt to prevent gang involvement and the associated behavior by providing opportunities for youth to develop skills to resist gang involvement. In addition, a positive support system and alternative activities that will provide a sense of acceptance and affiliation are key elements of prevention programs. More specifically, the goal is to address characteristics of youth who are prone to join gangs:

Boys and Girls Clubs of America have played a significant role in the development of community-based programs to serve high-risk youth in urban areas. In addition, Cities In Schools attempts to improve the array of social services available through schools at the elementary, junior and high school levels. These programs focus on drop-out prevention and academic achievement through the provision of social, medical and counseling services in the school.

Victims and Witnesses of Gang Violence and Crime

Victim assistance professionals face special challenges in supporting and serving victims and witnesses of gang-related crime. Geographical, cultural and racial considerations can create significant barriers to in a victim's ability to access services. Systems-based victim/witness programs are woefully unequipped to meet the myriad needs of gang-related crime victims and witnesses. Few community-based organizations have the experience or expertise to offer comprehensive assistance to this underserved victim population.

In order to assess the current scope of services for victims and witnesses of gang-related crime, as well as to determine victims' most salient needs, the Office for Victims of Crime convened a focus group in May 1996 of gang violence victims, survivors, victim assistance professionals, justice officials, and a researcher on witness protection. Their insights concerning the special needs of victims and witnesses in gang-related crime were very helpful, and are reflected in this section of this chapter.

Characteristics Unique to Victims

and Witnesses of Gang Violence

OVC focus group participants were asked to address specific aspects of victimization that are unique to gang-related crime, i.e. different from victims and witnesses of other types of crime. Their responses included the following:

Issues Relevant to Hatred, Race and Culture

"Gangs emerge from specific, diverse cultures." This statement from the OVC focus group initiated an in-depth discussion about cultural and racial considerations/issues that are crucial to understand when dealing with victims of gang violence, including:

Issues Relevant to Gang-related Victimization in Indian Country

Currently, there are jurisdictional issues of concern. Federal dollars emanating from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to tribes are prioritized into "wish lists" by tribes. Assisting victims of gang-related crimes can be "very low" for tribal priority allocation.

Victims in Indian Country have "limited rights." Often, crimes cross jurisdictions (county/municipal/state/federal) and require interagency cooperation. In addition, the penalties can differ for offenses against Native Americans versus non-Native Americans because of the involvement of Tribal Courts. For a detailed discussion of jurisdictional issues, please refer to the chapter on federal, military, and Native American victim assistance.

Gang Characteristics

OVC focus group participants, many of whom provide assistance and support "on the front line" of gang territories, provided a summary of their knowledge of gang characteristics:

Meeting the Needs of Victims of Gang Violence

The special needs of victims of gang violence are seldom met with specialized services. To the contrary, access to services and support is very limited, often due to geographical and cultural barriers, as well as fear of seeking assistance for a gang-related criminal victimization.

The OVC focus group on victims of gang violence, throughout an eight-hour discussion, identified key components of an ideal comprehensive, vertical gang victim assistance unit that is "user friendly," with easily accessible services.

Each unit should be staffed by a coordinator who has experience in and knowledge about providing sensitive, ongoing assistance to victims and witnesses of gang violence, as well as general expertise in the criminal justice system, gang prosecutions, and how corrections systems deal with gangs. Professional and volunteer support should be sought from gang prevention and intervention programs, system- and community-based victim assistance organizations, community policing efforts, and victims/survivors of gang violence. Program staff and volunteers must have the ability to provide services and support that are multilingual and dialect-specific.

Program components should include, but not be limited to:

In gang-related deaths, it is important for family members to be able to see their loved one while they are still alive, and/or have private time with the deceased victim prior to making funeral arrangements.

Program staff and volunteers should provide multi-lingual information, crisis counseling and referrals for ongoing assistance to victims and witnesses of gang violence. All services should be confidential, and should be coordinated, as needed, with criminal justice and law enforcement officials for calls related to witness intimidation, harassment or harm.

Through close coordination and communications with law enforcement, staff and volunteers who are trained in culturally-specific death notification and crisis intervention will be on-call at all times.

Immediate intervention services are often lacking because referrals are not made at the crisis stage of crimes for victims and witnesses. Improved coordination among law enforcement, prosecutors and victim service providers is needed, as well as interagency agreements regarding referrals and responsibilities for victim assistance.

There is a lack of volunteers who are willing to assist victims of gang violence. Efforts to recruit and train volunteers and interns from allied professions, i.e. gang prevention and intervention programs, community policing efforts, colleges and university internship programs, grass-roots community development groups, neighborhood churches, and victims and survivors of gang violence who want to assist other victims, should be institutionalized within the gang victim assistance program.

In many cases, there are no arrests, and thus no victim assistance available from court-based programs. Regardless of case status, victims and witnesses of gang violence should receive information, assistance and referrals for ongoing help. By coordinating outreach efforts with the news media, justice officials, and other victim assistance programs, more victims of gang-related violence should be aware of services available to assist them.

The gang victim assistance unit should provide multi-lingual information resources to emergency rooms, hospitals, funeral homes and medical examiners' offices. Training about available resources should also be provided to personnel at these locations to assist victims and witnesses who are illiterate.

The victim compensation application process can be bureaucratic and burdened by "red tape" for victims of gang violence. The gang victim assistance unit should guide victims through the process, and conduct thorough examinations of cases where victims have been deemed as "contributory" in the crimes (and therefore ineligible for compensation). Copy and fax machines should be available to help expedite the claims process. Multilingual services should overcome language barriers for non-English speaking victims. Follow-on to compensation applications should be provided, as needed.

Victims and witnesses may be afraid to take advantage of witness protection assistance; often they are threatened (including death threats) or intimidated into not getting involved in investigations and prosecutions.

Currently, there are few services available for extended family members of victims and witnesses. Outreach programs to this underserved victim population, along with support groups and information dissemination, will be established.

Recommendations for the U.S. Department of Justice

and Allied Federal Agencies

In the Report and Recommendations on Victims of Gang Violence (draft published in June 1996), the OVC focus group offered the following ten recommendations to improve rights, services and support for victims and witnesses of gang violence:

  1. Comprehensive vertical gang victim assistance units should be established in all jurisdictions where gang violence and crime are pervasive.
  2. Mentoring sites should be established with support from OVC to replicate model programs, policies, protocols and approaches that best serve victims and witnesses of gang violence.
  3. A comprehensive training curriculum that includes cross-disciplinary components should be developed that offers insights and skills necessary to assist victims and witnesses of gang violence.
  4. Policies, protocols and programs that promote safety for victims and witnesses of gang violence should be established at the federal, state and local levels.
  5. Protocols must be established for hospitals and emergency rooms on how to best serve victims of gang-related crimes.
  6. A protocol for debriefing all crisis responders to victims of gang violence must be developed and implemented.
  7. All federally-funded gang intervention/suppression programs should have a trained victim advocate position mandated as a component necessary for funding.
  8. OVC should establish an Advisory Board on Victims of Gang Violence to provide advice and direction to the U.S. Department of Justice, and assist in the development of curricula and resources on a nationwide basis.
  9. The U.S. Department of Justice should examine its existing resources relevant to all gang-related issues, and incorporate programs, policies and model approaches that apply specifically to victims and witnesses of gang violence.
  10. A national network of professionals and volunteers concerned with victims and witnesses of gang violence should be established to provide vision, support and direction to federal, state and local initiatives.

All of these recommendations require collaboration and commitment across agencies and jurisdictions in order to be truly effective in improving rights and services for victims and witnesses of gang-related crimes.

Federal Initiatives

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 created new statutory provisions under federal law for addressing street gangs. Generally the Act provides new and stiffer penalties for violent and drug trafficking crimes by gang members.

The statute increased the maximum prison sentence by up to ten years, under certain circumstances, for participating in gang-related federal drug offenses or for offenses committed by members of criminal street gangs.

Criminal street gangs are defined as an "ongoing" group or association of five or more persons that has as one of its primary purposes either:

The statute also requires that gang members must have engaged in a "continuing series" of such offenses within the past five years. In addition, the gang's activities must affect interstate and foreign commerce.


Gang violence and victimization present unique challenges for the criminal justice system and for victim assistance programs. This area has received more attention in recent years; however, our understanding of services for victims of gang violence is still formational, and, moreover, our ability to overcome distinct obstacles for service provision needs to be addressed. This chapter provides an overview of current state-of-the-art knowledge in this area.

Self Examination Chapter 21, Section 7

Gang Violence

1) List four reasons why youth may become members of violent gangs.

2) List five characteristics that are unique to victims of gang-related crime.

3) List five components of a comprehensive vertical gang victim assistance program.

4) What innovative services/approach might victim advocates want to take in providing services to victims of gang-related violence or surviving victims of youth killed in gang-related activity?


Chicago Police Department Gang Crime Section (n.d.). Street gangs. Chicago: Office of the Mayor.

Conly, C. (1993, August). Street gangs: Current knowledge and strategies. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.

FBI Academy Course Syllabus (1995, July). Gangs and gang violence.

Office for Victims of Crime Focus Group on Victims of Gang Violence. (1996, June). Report and recommendations on victims of gang violence (draft). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

Operation Safe Streets, Street Gang Detail (1992, April). L.A. style (Street gang manual). Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

To Chapter 21-Section 8

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