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Chapter 22 Special Topics

Section 3, Victims of Gang Violence


This section 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 as well as law enforcement intervention/suppression programs and prevention efforts. Victims' rights and needs, which have unique aspects when perpetrators are gang members, are also examined along with components of a model victim advocacy approach.

Learning Objectives

Upon completing this section, students will understand the following concepts:

  • Definitions of gangs.

  • Sociological characteristics commonly found in gang members.

  • Law enforcement and social service strategies to prevent and respond to gang activity.

  • Characteristics that are unique to victims and witnesses of gang violence.

  • How to best meet the needs of victims of gang violence.

  • Recommendations to improve rights, services, and support for victims and witnesses of gang violence.

  • Promising practices in assisting victims of gang violence.

Statistical Overview

  • An estimated 780,000 gang members were actively involved in gangs in 1998, down from 816,000 members in 1997. Of this number, 92% of gang members were estimated to be male and 8% were estimated to be female. The distribution of gang members by racial/ethnicity is Hispanic/Latino 46%, African-American 34%, Caucasian 12%, Asian 6%, and other races 2%. Thirty-three percent of the gangs were made up of a significant mix or two/or more racial/ethnic groups (OJJDP December 1999a).

  • There were 3,340 gang member-based homicides in 1997 representing 18% of the homicides reported nationwide (OJJDP December 1999b).

  • In an investigation into roles in the gang hierarchy played by its members, researchers discovered that members who were active for the entire four-year period of the study had roughly a 25% chance of dying. Furthermore, gang members experienced an average of more than two nonfatal injuries (mostly from gunshots) and nearly six arrests in that four-year period (Venkatesh November 1999).


The problem of gangs is reaching a critical point in many 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 suffering experienced by victims and neighborhoods under gang siege. 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 or eight years of age.

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 in many suburban and rural communities. Victims of gang violence have many special needs that are highlighted throughout this section.

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.

In Deadly Consequences, noted academician and youth violence expert Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith cites three types of gangs as identified by Dr. Carl S. Taylor, a Detroit sociologist:

  1. Scavenger gangs are the least organized and the least "successful" gangs. Leadership of these groups can change daily or weekly. Scavengers do not have any pre-planned goals. Their crimes are spontaneous, as is their method of banding together. Taylor says that the members of this kind of gang are likely to be low-achievers and drop-outs who are prone to erratic behavior. Scavenger gangs are looked down upon by other more organized gangs. After an initial period of disorganization, some scavenger gangs . . . retool themselves into territorial gangs.

  2. Territorial gangs are the turf-loyal organizations we all tend to think of when we think of gangs in Los Angeles . . . highly organized and highly elaborated with formal initiation rites for entering members andmany other ceremonies, traditions, and practices that separate members from non-members . . . The members of territorial gangs are young people who have usually done very poorly in school. Often they have troubled family lives. Many speak little English. The gangs provide them with the sense of being someone, and they are proud to be identified as members.

    A major activity of territorial gangs is fighting. The whole point of marking off your own territory is to keep somebody else out . . . the turf boundaries that territorial gangs protect from incursion may be merged with the boundaries of a gang's drug-selling territory, but this is not always the case. Territorial gangs sometimes sell drugs and sometimes do not. The primary purpose of these gangs, however, is social, not economic. Drug selling is a vehicle for survival, not the reason these gangs exist.

  3. . . . . Though made up of teens sometimes as young as fourteen, corporate gangs are really highly structured criminal conspiracies organized to sell drugs . . . Members of corporate gangs are gangsters in the traditional sense of the word. Discipline, secrecy, and strict codes of behavior are required of every member. Punishments can be severe . . . Members of corporate gangs, though not necessarily schooled, are often highly intelligent. Leaders must be capable of sophisticated strategic planning, personnel management, and money management (Prothrow-Stith 1993).


Street gangs begin for many social and economic reasons. Following are the two of the most common reasons youth join gangs:

  • The breakdown of the family as a cohesive unit.

  • Desperate poverty.

In recent years, street gangs have been observed in middle-class areas, but close scrutiny of these gangs reveals that, in general, 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.

The Pinellas County (Florida) Sheriff's Department identifies seven key reasons that a young person becomes involved in a youth or street gang (1992):

  1. A sense of recognition and power (ego trip). Gang involvement provides a sense of power, excitement, recognition, and a chance to develop leadership qualities. Gang participation also allows a member to achieve a level of status s/he feels is impossible to attain outside the gang subculture due to unemployment or lack of success in school, sports, or other activities.

  2. Peer pressure, acceptance (intimidation). Many adolescents feel that "going along with a crowd" is an important factor in joining a gang. Some young people seek out gangs due to a strong need to belong to something. Others assimilate into youth gangs as a result of intimidation or even violent peer pressure from other gang members. Many youths have boy/girl friends who are gang members and therefore join to be with their friends.

  3. Lack of opportunity. Some youths simply join a gang because they feel there are no other opportunities to look forward to in the future (nothing else to live for).

  4. Protection and/or fear. Some youths are fearful of the continued threats or perceived threats they receive from other members. Some youths join gangs in order to protect themselves from assaults from rival gangs.

  5. Obtain a sense of "family" and an identity. Adolescents desire to belong to a "family" or a structured group which can also provide a strong sense of identity. The gang can act as a substitute for family cohesiveness that is often lacking in a member's home environment. Youths will join a gang to receive the love, attention, and positive strokes they feel they have not been receiving at home from their parents.

  6. A source of income. A false sense of economic security is promoted due to the money and drugs that lure young people into gangs. Gang members feel they can make more money within a gang than they can on the outside.

  7. Older siblings and/or relatives were gang members. Some members of street gangs have had other members of their family involved in gang activity. They look up to and/or respect these persons and desire to be like them.

Gang Characteristics

In 1996, OVC sponsored a series of focus groups made up of victims of gang violence and victim advocates. Participants--many of whom provide assistance and support "on the front line" of gang territories--provided a summary of their knowledge of gang characteristics:

  • Gangs provide security and support to their members. There is a lack of alternatives in communities that can provide security and support, especially to youth.

  • As a society, the United States is very "unforgiving" of former gang members' pasts.

  • Youthful gang members have "no fear of death" and often how they die is what is important in gang dynamics. This factor contributes to retaliatory gang violence and criminal acts that are increasingly violent in nature.

  • Gangs have highly complex, multi-tier structures. They are "smart and organized," making prevention/intervention efforts more challenging.

  • Efforts to seek "peace treaties" among gangs and thereby reduce violence and victimization can be destroyed by one person within one gang.

  • Children in communities where gangs are present often have a "strong frame of reference for violence." For many parents, maintaining control over their children is an "everyday battle." Parents have no support to help them prevent their children from entering into gang lifestyles.

  • Hate gangs (such as skinheads) have unique cross-jurisdictional issues because the gang members "roam" from one community to the next.

  • Asian-American gangs tend to "stay within their culture," are "more capitalistic," economically prosperous, and reinvest in their own operations. With Asian-American gang-related crimes, there is no trust in the criminal justice system, and law enforcement is "notesteemed." Coalitions to provide victim assistance and services are difficult to build (Seymour and Ray 1996).


The transformation of a youth into a gang member does not take place overnight 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 "recruit" reaches an age where he or she can prove himself or herself to peer leaders within the gang structure, some rite of passage or ceremony must be gone through to earn 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 having that recruit perform some violent crime against another person. Alternately, some members may be "courted in"--simply accepted into the gang without having to prove themselves in any particular way.


There are various indicators of gang activity on school campuses. 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.

When viewed from a law enforcement perspective, gang activity is a study in violent crime. A perpetual cycle of violence has been established within the street gang milieu. Gang rivalries may date back many years. As new generations of members enter the gang, they are taught to hate their rivals as vehemently as their predecessors did. Investigators have found that many times gang members do not know the reasons they originally became rivals of a particular gang. They know of only 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, applying conventional law enforcement techniques to street gangs is difficult. Many street gang members see their violent behavior toward rivals as a legitimate endeavor.


In a recent survey of high school students in Seattle, Washington, gang members reported that they were nearly three times as likely as non-gang members to obtain a gun easily. 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 (1993) 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.

Community and Law Enforcement


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 as follows:

  • Incapacitation of hard-core gang members.

  • Increasing punishment.

  • Deterring involvement in gangs.

  • Rehabilitation of gang members.

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, many 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 the parents in obtaining social services as needed. Through these methods officers have gained the confidence ofparents and have been successful in working cooperatively with them to prevent gang involvement.

Some consistent themes, as listed below, emerge when discussing effective responses to gangs and gang violence.

  • Coordination and information sharing among federal, state, and local agencies.

  • Increased use of community-based policing.

  • The development of integrated, automated tracking systems for information on gang members as they move in and out of the criminal justice system.

  • Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT).

  • Continued use of Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) programs.


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 Preventing Gang- and Drug-Related Witness Intimidation report published in 1996 by the National Institute of Justice focused on efforts to prevent victim and witness intimidation in gang- and drug-related cases. With regard to the nature and extent of this problem, this report delineates two forms of witness intimidation that are hampering the investigation and prosecution of crime:

  • overt intimidation, when someone does something explicitly to intimidate a witness; and

  • implicit intimidation, when there is a real but unexpressed threat of harm, as when rampant gang violence creates a community-wide atmostphere of fear.

The NIJ report found that traditional prosecutorial approaches to victim/witness intimidation, such as prosecuting intimidators vigorously, requesting high bail to keep intimidators locked up, and enhancing basic victim/witness program services simply are not enough to prevent intimidation. Innovative security programs, however, which have expanded upon or taken a different approach with respect to the above traditional practices, are proving successful. Elements of such programs include:

  • Relocation of genuinely endangered witnesses, including emergency, short term, and permanent relocation.

  • Removal or segregation of gang members in the courtroom, or the complete closing of the courtroom to spectators.

  • The reduction of community-wide intimidation through the use of community policing, vertical prosecution, and other strategies (Finn and Healey 1996).


In 1997, the Bureau of Justice Assistance published a monograph entitled Addressing Community Gang Problems: A Model for Problem Solving. A number of response options for communities that seek to address the problems of gang-related activities were presented in the context of the "SARA" model (scanning, analysis, response, and assessment). The response stage has three objectives: developing options based on information gathered during the analysis, selecting a response, and implementing the response.

Developing response options. After a problem has been identified and analyzed, possible responses need to be developed and listed. These response options should be wide ranging, and no option should be ruled out at this point in the process. The range of possible responses includes the following strategies (Goldstein 1990):

  • Focus in. Concentrate attention on the relatively small number of individuals who usually account for a disproportionate share of any problem--those who cause it (offenders), facilitate it (controllers, managers, and guardians), or suffer from it (victims).

  • Connect with other governmental and private services. Thoroughly analyzing a problem often leads to recognizing the need for (1) more effective referrals of victims and/or offenders to existing governmental and private services; (2) improved coordination among agencies that exert control over the problems or individuals involved in the incidents; and (3) correction of inadequacies in municipal services and development of new services.

  • Use mediation and negotiation skills. Using mediation and negotiation teams can often be an effective response to conflicts.

  • Convey information. Relaying sound and accurate information is one of the least used but potentially most effective responses to a wide range of problems. Information can

      (1) reduce anxiety and fear, (2) enable citizens to solve their own problems, (3) help people conform to laws and regulations that are not known or understood, (4) warn potential victims about their vulnerability and advise them of ways to protect themselves, (5) demonstrate to people how they unwittingly contribute to problems, (6) develop support for addressing a problem, and (7) acquaint the community with the limitations of government agencies and define what can be realistically expected of those agencies.

  • Mobilize the community. Mobilizing a specific segment of the community can help implement a specific response for as long as it takes to reduce or eliminate problems.

  • Use existing forms of social control. Use the social control inherent in existing relationships, such as the influence of a parent, teacher, employer, or church.

  • Alter the physical environment. Adapting the principles of crime prevention through environmental design can reduce opportunities for problems to recur.

  • Regulate, through statutes or ordinances, conditions that contribute to problems. Analysis of the factors contributing to problems may identify those that can be controlled by regulation through statutes or ordinances.

  • Develop new forms of limited authority to intervene and detain. Expanding problem solvers' authority to intervene with or detain persons involved in an incident may prevent escalation into criminal behavior.

  • Use the criminal justice system only when appropriate. Use only the appropriate elements of the system, including (1) straightforward investigation, arrest, and prosecution; (2) selective enforcement with clear guidelines; (3) enforcement of criminal laws that, by tradition, are enforced by another agency; (4) greater clarity in defining behavior subject to criminal justice prosecution or control through local ordinances; (5) intervention without arrest; (6) arrest without the intention to prosecute, and (7) attachment of new conditions to probation or parole.

  • Use civil law. Public nuisances, offensive behavior, and conditions contributing to crime can be controlled through civil law. Because most police activity involves arrest and prosecution, it is easy to forget that police and local government can initiate other legal proceedings, including those related to licensing, zoning, property confiscation, nuisance abatement, and the use of injunctions.

Responses should focus on offenders, victims, third parties, places, and/or tools. After all possible responses are listed, information about their legality, cost, effectiveness, and value to the community should be collected (Goldstein 1990).

Selecting a response. The information collected during the analysis stage of the SARA problem-solving model facilitates the selection of the most appropriate responses from the alternatives listed. The most effective responses take into account community values and often contain input from individuals directly affected by the problem. In addition, it is common to use several of the alternatives to respond to one problem. Some of these responses may be more important than others; some may need to be implemented before others. In deciding which response, or group of responses, to implement, consider the following factors (Goldstein 1990):

  • The likelihood that the response will reduce or otherwise affect the problem positively.

  • The effect on the problem's most serious features or most important social concerns.

  • The preventive character of the response (its ability to reduce repetition of the problem or the problem's serious outcomes).

  • The extent to which the response invades the lives of people and relies on legal authority and the possible use of force.

  • The viewpoints of the various people and organizations (stakeholders) likely to be affected by the response.

  • The cost of the response (budget detail).

  • The availability of legal authority and resources.

  • The lawfulness and civility of the response and how it will influence relationships.

  • The ease of implementing the response.

Implementing a response. The following activities take place during implementation of the response:

  • Listing the tasks required to carry out the response.

  • Selecting a manager or coordinator for the response.

  • Setting timelines for accomplishing tasks.

  • Designing an assessment of the response.

  • Coordinating tasks carried out by separate groups.

  • Developing a written action plan.

Even in the most collaborative efforts, programs need clear and consistent leadership. Someone needs to assume responsibility for overseeing the response and ensuring that goals and objectives are met. A program coordinator can manage the program on a daily basis to make sure there is timely implementation, problem solving, and staff direction. Several factors support effective implementation of a response (BJA 1997):

  • Leadership. Response managers are responsible for communicating information, coordinating tasks and creating a spirit of trust among those carrying out the response. Managers should articulate the goals and objectives of the response effort.

  • Teamwork. The role of each person or group involved in the response effort should be clearly defined. Efforts should be made to facilitate the exchange of information among those involved.

  • Communication. Response managers need to stay in touch with others involved in the response effort so that they are aware if implementation problems and accomplishments and can obtain problem-solving information.

  • Administration. An effective, easy-to-use recordkeeping system and a method for obtaining information about the response activities should be developed so that the effort can be monitored continuously.


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 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:

  • Lack of education.

  • Lack of job skills and job opportunities.

  • Lack of family support.

  • Low self-esteem.

  • Drug and alcohol abuse.

  • Lack of opportunity for positive, social interaction (recreation or sports).

Boys and Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) have played a significant role in the development of community-based programs to serve high-risk youth in urban areas. In addition, BGCA's 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 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 and to determine victims' most salient needs, in 1996, the Office for Victims of Crime convened a series of focus groups composed of gang violence victims, survivors, victim assistance professionals, justice officials, and a researcher on witness protection. Theirinsights concerning the special needs of victims and witnesses in gang-related crime were very helpful and are reflected in the following section.


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

  • Victims and witnesses must face the entire community of the gang, as opposed to a sole perpetrator, which can mean greater or more far-reaching intimidation and retaliation.

  • There tends to be a lack of sympathy for victims of gang violence, often because of false assumptions made regarding their "contribution" toward the crime.

  • If a victim has gang affiliations, there is also a lack of sympathy and services from the criminal justice system, their families, and other victims. Because of restrictions on individuals who, in some way, "contribute" to their crimes, victims' rights, services, and compensation are non-existent or very limited.

  • Victims and witnesses are often intimidated by gang members into not cooperating with the justice system at all; those who resist such tactics are very often subject to gang intimidation during court proceedings.

  • In many court settings, victims and witnesses are in the same hallways as gang members.

  • When gang-related convictions result in prison and/or jail sentences, adult and juvenile correctional agencies often lack clear policies and procedures to ensure inmate security and to prevent possible further victimization, intimidation, or gang retaliation.

  • Attitudes toward and services available for victims of gang violence can be affected by a community's attitudes toward gangs, which varies from "despise" to "respect."

  • There is a lack of personal support for victims of gang violence.

  • The popular media portray victims of and witnesses to gang violence in a negative and sensational manner. Gangs are often "glamorized," and the media fail to adequately show the consequences of gang violence on victims and witnesses.

  • In some cases, both victims and perpetrators of gang violence cross generations.

  • Victims of gang violence may be affected by cultural norms and mores that include a "general distrust of government;" as such, they may be hesitant to access services that are in any way related to government, or be willing to be witnesses within the justice system.

  • Victims Of Crime Act (VOCA) victim assistance dollars cannot be used to assist witnesses who are intimidated or to provide protection to victims and witnesses of gang violence.

  • Most communities do not provide any funding, such as relocation assistance, to help ensure the safety of gang violence victims and do not have effective victim assistance programs for them.

  • Geographical location and poverty of some victims of gang violence combine and equate to a lack of support and services.

  • Children who are victimized by gang violence or who lose a loved one to gang violence have unique grief and recovery issues.


"Gangs emerge from specific, diverse cultures." This statement from one of the OVC focus groups initiated an in-depth discussion about cultural and racial considerations/issues that are crucial to understand when dealing with victims of gang violence. The following statements represent comments from the OVC focus group discussion and Special Report on Victims of Gang Violence (OVC 1996) and further illuminate the often-prevailing attitude that victims of gang violence contribute to their own victimization.

  • Victims are often judged by their race and culture. The question may be asked: "Are they really deserving of victim services and rights?"

  • Children from non-white races and cultures are viewed only as perpetrators.

  • Contributory issues are significant with victims of color.

  • Victim blaming is considerable, including questions like "Why didn't you just move (away from a gang-infested neighborhood)?" or "Why was your child out, and why don't you control that child?"

  • Victims who are frustrated with and/or angry at the criminal justice system response (or lack thereof) in their cases are less likely to want or to have access to services.

  • Victims who are recent immigrants are often "afraid of the criminal justice system." They need specialized services, recognizing not only differences in language but also dialect. For victims and witnesses who are threatened, blackmail (to turn them into the INS, etc.) is often a component of intimidation.


Incidence of gang-related victimization in Indian Country is small but growing. It is difficult to stop due to isolation, drug influence, and lack of alternative activities. In addition, when juveniles go to adult prison or youth detention facilities, they may learn gang activity there and bring it back to tribal land.

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 theinvolvement of Tribal Courts. For a detailed discussion of jurisdictional issues, please refer to the "Tribal Justice" section of this text.


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

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

Vertical gang victim assistance unit. 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.

Programs should include the following components:

  • Training on how to provide case information to victims without jeopardizing any current or future criminal case. Victims of gang violence must be told the truth about the facts of their cases from the initial crime throughout the entire justice system process.

  • Protocol on addressing the needs of family members whose loved ones are critically injured or deceased. Efforts should be coordinated with emergency rooms, hospitals, medical examiners, and funeral homes. 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.

  • Crisis lines for victims and witnesses available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. 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.

  • Death notifications and crisis intervention provided by staff and volunteers twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. 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.

  • Comprehensive intervention services, closely coordinated with law enforcement officials, available to victims and witnesses as soon as a gang-related crime is reported. Immediate intervention services are often lacking because referrals for victims and witnesses are notmade at the crisis stage of crimes. Improved coordination among law enforcement, prosecutors, and victim service providers is needed, as well as interagency agreements regarding referrals and responsibilities for victim assistance.

  • An ongoing volunteer recruitment and training program to increase human resources needed to provide victim and witness assistance around-the-clock in jurisdictions where gang violence is pervasive. 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 such as gang prevention and intervention programs, community policing efforts, colleges and university internship programs, grassroots 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.

  • Ongoing community outreach about available services for victims and witnesses to increase usage of the 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.

  • Victim information, assistance, and referral resources, including detailed information about specific victims' rights and services, available on-site at all locations at which victims and witnesses of gang violence might be present. 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.

  • Assistance in completing victim compensation applications provided on a timely basis. 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.

  • Witness protection services coordinated with appropriate justice officials. 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.

  • Information and support services for extended family members of victims and witnesses of gang violence. 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, should be established.

Federal Initiatives

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 created new statutory provisions under federal law for addressing street gang crime. 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 one of the following as one of its primary purposes:

  • The commission of a federal drug offense punishable by at least five years in jail.

  • The commission of a federal violent offense.

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.

Recommendations for the U.S. Department of Justice and Allied Federal Agencies

In the Special Report on Victims of Gang Violence: A New Frontier in Victim Services (OVC 1996), the following ten recommendations to improve rights, services, and support for victims and witnesses of gang violence were offered:

  1. 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.

  2. Comprehensive vertical assistance units for victims of gang violence should be established in all jurisdictions where gang activity is prevalent. These units could offer the types of multi-lingual services provided by the Gang Victim Services Program in Orange County, California, which include emergency crisis response services, accompaniment throughout the criminal and juvenile justice systems, and training for victim service providers.

  3. Hospital-based counseling and prevention programs should be established in medical facilities that often provide services to gang violence victims. . . . A protocol that includes appropriate security and safety procedures to protect victims from retaliation in the hospital should be developed to assist hospital personnel in responding to incidents of gang violence.

  4. School-based counseling and prevention programs addressing gang violence should be established where gangs are prevalent. These programs could be modeled after the integrated mediation and violence prevention programs of Victim Services, Inc. (VSI) in New York City. VSI programs include an anti-violence curriculum, support groups, and conflict resolution/peer mediation modules that are used in cases involving gang violence. Gang-impacted school districts should consider providing crisis counseling services for youth witnesses to violent crime.

  5. Host sites should be established with support from OVC to provide interested parties from other communities with training regarding promising practices, such as comprehensive victim assistance programs based in prosecutors' offices, hospitals, and schools.

  6. Training curricula that include cross-disciplinary information should be developed and offered to professionals who deal with victims and witnesses of gang violence. Training should be provided for first responders on how to deal with survivors at the crime scene; funeral directors on how to deal with gangs before, during, and after funeral services; and all criminal and juvenile justice personnel, mental health professionals, compensation providers, and teachers.

  7. A protocol should be developed and implemented for debriefing all crisis responders to victims of gang violence, including emergency medical technicians and law enforcement personnel, who face serious threats to their physical and emotional well-being when not provided with ongoing opportunities for debriefing following critical incidents.

  8. Policies, protocols, and programs should be established to promote safety for victims and witnesses of gang violence and those who assist them at the federal, state, tribal, and local levels. These could include both emergency and short-term relocation programs, security measures in court houses and at correctional facilities, and secure transportation. Prosecutors should be encouraged to use every legal measure possible to ensure the safety of such witnesses before, during, and after case disposition.

  9. The U.S. Department of Justice should review its existing resources relevant to victims of gang violence and provide more discretionary funding to encourage the proliferation of "promising practices" that reduce gang violence and assist victims. All federally funded gang intervention/suppression programs and advisory groups should include needed services for victims of gang violence.

  10. OVC should support a working group on victims and witnesses of gang violence to provide assistance in the development of training curricula, selection of host sites, and implementation of recommendations contained in this Report.

Promising Practices

(The following promising practices were identified in OVC's Special Report published in 1996 entitled Victims of Gang Violence: A New Frontier in Victim Services.)

  • Teens on Target is a hospital-based gang violence reduction program in Los Angeles and Oakland, California. It provides immediate and long-term assistance to teenage victims, intervention with gang members who accompany victims to emergency rooms, and gang prevention strategies for schools. The program uses trained peer counselors, many of whom are in wheelchairs because they, too, were victims of gang violence. Thesecounselors give bedside support to injured teens and act as positive role models, providing alternatives to violence.

    During each hospital visit, the peer counselor provides a one-on-one review of the violent crime that led to the hospitalization and explores alternative strategies for dealing with violent incidents; shares coping skills and support systems; helps to develop a plan for staying safe; and sets up ongoing peer support to help the victim not rejoin the gang culture. If gang members accompany a victim to the emergency room, peer counselors encourage them not to pursue violent responses. This program received the 1996 Crime Victim Service Award, the highest federal honor for victim advocacy.

  • Victims Services, Inc., offers school-based programs in New York City to educate students, faculty, and family members how to cope with and avoid crime, including gang violence, that pervades their daily lives. These programs operate in coordinated fashion within a number of schools, with the particular needs of each community in mind. They include the following elements:

    • A 20-lesson anti-violence curriculum offered in ten schools. The curriculum addresses gang violence, bias-related incidents, domestic violence, and child abuse.

    • Safe Harbors, a safe room in the school where students, faculty, and families can find counseling and support groups, including ones addressing gang violence.

    • Project SMART, a peer mediation/conflict resolution program that teaches students, faculty, and parents alternatives to violence. It has been effectively used in resolving disputes between rival gangs.

    • Training in crisis intervention and victim assistance for parents, including how to support kids who witness or experience violence.

  • Save Our Sons and Daughters (SOSAD) is a nonprofit grassroots organization founded in 1987 by Clementine Barfield, whose 16-year-old son, Derrick, was killed in the summer of 1986. She joined other parents of slain children to channel their grief and anger into activism, working together to create positive alternatives to violence throughout the community. SOSAD provides counseling and training in violence prevention, crisis intervention, multi-cultural conflict resolution, gang redirection, and peer and bereavement support.

  • Another group led by mothers who have lost children to gang violence is Mothers of All Children, located in Brooklyn, New York, which was founded by Frances Davis who during the past eight years, lost each of her three sons to gunfire. Ms. Davis turned her pain into service and in 1993, created her own nonprofit, all-volunteer organization, Mothers of All Children. Ms. Davis recruits, trains, and inspires her volunteers, who then provide other survivors of homicide victims with bereavement counseling or help organize community violence prevention activities for youth, such as the basketball tournament, "Shoot Hoops, Not Guns." Frances Davis deals with her grief and her loss by continuing to participate in victim impact panels before young people at high schools and detention centers throughout the northeast.

  • The Tariq Khamisa Foundation, located in San Diego, California, was founded by investment banker Azim Khamisa after the murder of his 20-year-old son, Tariq. Tariq wasdelivering pizzas when four teenaged gang members surrounded him and demanded the pizza. When he refused, an 18-year-old gang leader ordered a 14-year-old to kill Tariq with a handgun. Tariq's father joined with the grandfather of the 14-year-old killer to form the Foundation, which is dedicated to preventing similar crimes through educational programs in schools. The Foundation is producing a documentary to assist kids in learning about gang violence and its impact. The documentary will feature an interview with Tariq's killer, who was sentenced to thirty years in custody and who encourages students to seek alternatives to gangs.

  • The Wichita/Sedgewick County Neighborhood Initiative in Kansas is a public-private effort to reduce gang violence by coordinating the efforts of grassroots community organizations; public agencies, including law enforcement, city government, and the schools; and interested for-profit and nonprofit private sector businesses, labor groups, and civic organizations. The Initiative's primary function is to obtain needed resources to deal with gang violence by bringing all parties to the table regularly, including community police administrators, city and county management representatives, the mayor, legislators, grassroots anti-gang groups, and gang members themselves. When a two-year-old child was murdered in a drive-by shooting, the Initiative responded to community requests for assistance by trying to arrange a truce among the rival gangs. The Initiative's project director is on loan to the group from the Boeing Company for three years, and several private-sector organizations provide storefront space and volunteers.

  • Many victim/witness programs provide areas where victims may wait apart from the defendant before testifying, and most also provide advocates to escort frightened witnesses to and from court. Prosecutors in the Clark County (Las Vegas) Attorney's Office regularly call the county's victim/witness assistance program if they know that a witness feels intimidated to request that the program advocate stationed in the court sit with the witness during the hearing or trial (Finn and Healey 1996).

  • Some programs take further measures that help to alleviate victims' fears as well as help prevent intimidation. Polk County victim service program staff will call the public defender's office to request that the defendant "ease up." The St. Louis Victim Service Council arranges for police to conduct security surveys of homes. The Hennepin County, MN Attorney's Office has arranged to have security systems installed in the homes of key witnesses who refused to relocate even temporarily because of job requirements or family ties (Ibid.).

  • Victims/Witness Unit, Shelby County, TN. Victim/witness intimidation in neighborhoods with a high density of illegal immigrants creates additional concerns for victims and witnesses of gang crime. For example, the District Attorney's Office in Shelby County, TN found that local gangs directed a growing amount of violence towards immigrants known to have entered the county illegally. The gangs preyed upon neighborhoods with large populations of immigrants recognizing that for fear of deportation, the victims were less likely to report crimes and the witnesses were less likely to come forward to offer evidence.

    In an effort to reassure illegal immigrant victims of gang violence that their victimization would be fully addressed by law enforcement and the criminal justice system, regardless of their citizenship status, and to encourage key witnesses to testify, the Victims/Witness Unitin Shelby County, TN received permission from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to develop and distribute through law enforcement, a photo ID card that identifies them as participants in an ongoing case in the county criminal justice system and prevents their deportation by the INS. As a result, victim advocates are building a greater foundation of trust when they interact with the immigrant community, and more gang violence is successfully prosecuted. Victim Witness Unit, District Attorney's Office, Criminal Justice Center, 201 Poplar, Suite 301, Memphis TN 38103-1947 (901-545-5900) (Blackburn 17 October 1999).

  • Mothers Against Violence in America (MAVIA) is a grassroots community mobilization organization, founded in 1993 in Seattle, WA in response to a dramatic increase of violence by and against children. MAVIA supports prevention and early intervention for youth-at-risk for gang-related activities and focuses on prevention that is developmentally based, beginning at an early age and continuing onto adulthood. MAVIA promotes education that provides tools for children to deal with conflict--teaching them about their choices and taking responsibility for those choices. MAVIA promotes community education opportunities for parents and children on violence prevention and victim awareness education. Intervention with crime victims of gang-related violence (offering respect and providing information and education) is a tool for preventing future crime among victimized youth and those growing up in a violent environment. Mothers Against Violence in America, 105 14th Avenue, Suite 2-A, Seattle WA 98122 (800-897-7697).

  • Gang Prevention Through Targeted Outreach is a comprehensive program that directs at-risk young people to positive alternatives offered by Boys & Girls Clubs. Through both direct outreach efforts and referrals by courts, police, juvenile justice agencies, schools, social service agencies, and community organizations, young people identified as at-risk are recruited and mainstreamed into club program activities as a diversion from gang activity. Gang Prevention Through Targeted Outreach, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, 1230 Peachtree St. NW, Atlanta, GA 30309-3494 (404-815-5763).

Victims of Gang Violence Self-Examination

1. Give a statutory definition of "gang."


2. Describe three of the eleven recommended options for communities to respond to gang activity.


3. List three characteristics that are unique to victims of gang-related crime.


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


5. What are some of the barriers to effective victim assistance for victims of gang violence?


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Chapter 22 Special Topics June 2002
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