Background

In the National Gang Intelligence Center’s 2015 survey of federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement, more than half of respondents reported that street gang membership and gang-related crime had increased in their jurisdictions over the past two years. Faced with increases in gang-related incidents, many law enforcement agencies are seeking advanced, robust methods for identifying, investigating, and addressing the prevalence of gangs operating within certain geographic areas. To meet this need, gang and criminology experts Dr. Charles Katz and Dr. Andrew Fox partnered with the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) National Training and Technical Assistance Center (NTTAC) to help jurisdictions conduct gang assessments that will enable local leaders to use resources more efficiently for the suppression, intervention, and prevention of gang-related crime.

Determining Capacity to Engage in a Gang Assessment

Gang assessments present a valuable opportunity for law enforcement agencies that are searching for a targeted, locally driven approach for combating gang crime. Gang assessments are based on the idea that a small number of individuals, groups, and locations disproportionately account for violence and crime. Building an understanding of these factors can help shape effective policing strategies.

In Dr. Katz and Dr. Fox’s experience, many law enforcement agencies are unsure if they have the organizational infrastructure to identify the ‘who,’ ‘what,’ ‘where,’ and ‘why’ of local gang crime. For example, a jurisdiction may not have a history of collecting group violence intelligence. In other cases, local or state legislation may not be in place to easily enable the collection of such data. Therefore, the first step in performing a gang assessment is conducting a feasibility study so that the agency can determine:

  1. Whether the agency’s leadership and partner groups are committed to using the resources necessary to perform the gang assessment (e.g., budget, time, personnel);
  2. The extent to which partner groups can share information; and
  3. The level and types of data to which the partner groups have access.

Once a law enforcement agency determines that it has the required support and resources, it can proceed with the gang assessment. Through their work, Dr. Fox and Dr. Katz have identified three objectives that drive these assessments – suppression, prevention, and/or intervention. For assessments solely aiming to suppress gang crime, common elements of analysis include: the number, names, and demographic information of the local gangs and gang-involved persons; the types of crimes being committed; and alliances and conflict points between and among gangs. However, if the objective includes identifying prevention and/or intervention strategies, a gang assessment may involve additional steps to examine the root causes of membership and violence, such as looking at the drivers of youth justice involvement or recidivism rates and then focusing on targeted strategies for violence interruption and reduction.

Using Data to Develop Flexible Approaches for Addressing Gang Crime

At the center of gang assessments is data – timely information that is easily shareable and actionable. There are various tools available to law enforcement to assist in the collection of data, from using field interview forms to developing departmentwide protocols for collecting and sharing information on gang members. Additionally, law enforcement agencies should consider regularly conducting group audits, which convene line level officers and other experts to identify the current key players, conflicts, and alliances within and among gangs in their jurisdictions.

The data collected enables law enforcement to pinpoint where violent conflicts occur, and then focus on specific groups and areas of conflict. For example, Dr. Fox and Dr. Katz used social network analysis (SNA) to help the Flint, Michigan Police Department (PD) examine the networks of conflicts and alliances among the city’s gang-involved groups. SNA enabled Flint PD to identify points of interconnection between the groups to determine their involvement in criminal activity. By building an understanding of intergang social structures, the Flint PD is better able to determine which gang – or gangs – are driving crime and violence, and then allocate the department’s resources accordingly.

Data collection alone will not result in a successful gang assessment. Dr. Katz and Dr. Fox also emphasize the importance of having trained personnel with the skills, analytical ability, and adaptability to use the data to design appropriate responses to gang crime and violence. Flexibility from law enforcement leadership is essential: strategies must be adapted to meet shifting needs, such as changes in gang alliances or in the locations or types of gang crime. Once law enforcement agencies have these elements – leadership support, accessible and shareable data, analytical capacity, and flexibility – engaging in a gang assessment empowers them to develop data-driven strategies to suppress, reduce, and prevent gang-related crime.

Dr. Charles Katz is the Watts Family Director of the Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety and a professor in the School of Criminology & Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. Dr. Katz’s research focuses on gangs and strategic responses to community gang problems. Dr. Andrew Fox is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology at Fresno State University. Dr. Fox’s research interests include social network analysis, street gangs, and crime prevention.

To submit the work of your organization or jurisdiction for consideration to be featured in a future BJA NTTAC TTA Spotlight, please email nttac@bjatraining.org.

If your agency or community is interested in gang assessments or would like to apply for technical assistance, please contact BJA NTTAC at nttac@bjatraining.org to discuss your unique criminal justice needs.