Chapter 21 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:

Statistical Overview


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 and many 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:

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:


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:

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 of parents 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.


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:

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:


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):

(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.

(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.

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):

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

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):


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:

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. Their insights 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:


"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.


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 the involvement 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:

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 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.)

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.

- 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.

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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