Tag Archives: street gangs

Everyone gets ICP wrong

Spencer Ackerman stumbles a bit in his attempt to continue piling on the FBI on the heels of his work at demonstrating real concerns about the Bureau’s terrorism training.

A few days ago the FBI released their annual gang assessment.  Now I’m going going to go into a full review of the document other than to say it’s unclear why they clearly didn’t consult a MUCH more comprehensive survey of the subject in New Jersey and, as a result, came away with a highly misleading evaluation of the gang situation there.

Included in the list of ‘non-traditional gangs’ are the Juggalos.

Enter Mr. Ackerman’s punchline.

The FBI considers the fans of shticky rap group Insane Clown Posse to represent a threat on par with the Crips, Bloods, and Aryan Brotherhood, according to its annual report on gang activity.

You might think Insane Clown Posse’s people — known as the Juggalos — are just a group of face-painting teenagers who wonder how magnets work. Not so, says the FBI’s 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment. To the feds, Juggalos are a “loosely-organized hybrid gang” that are “forming more organized subsets and engaging in more gang-like criminal activity.”

And this is why agencies that try (in good faith) to talk about issues like this have to provide the public (and press) with context and information so they can make informed judgements about that information.

You see, the vast majority of Juggalos are as Spencer describes.  What happens, however, is that there are a small number of people who are gang members whose commonality is wrapped up in the Juggalos style.  They call themselves Juggalos, identify with the culture and reference the music in their criminal activities.

The problem really is, how do you label a group like this without also labeling the law abiding members of this subculture?

You can laugh all you want about the idea of face painting gangsters and Faygo but allow me to provide one example of why it’s not a joke.

…the two teens had concocted a plan to “meet him, scare him, and kill him.” Freemore told police that he had stabbed Michael in both the neck and stomach and that Seagraves had stabbed him in the neck.

And…

Seagraves, Freemore and the Juggalo supporters connected to them through MySpace showed a fascination with ICP’s violent lyrics and a fierce loyalty to each other. Instead of showing remorse over the death of Goucher, Juggalo friends posted words of encouragement on the accused killer’s site until the site was shut down Wednesday.

Everyone here should have done a much better job of explaining these issues and providing some context to the discussion of gangs and crime.

Gang members…a kaleidoscope of crazy

Why in the world do gang members advertise their presence by prominently displaying ‘colors’, handsigns or tattoos?

Red? Really? It's really only acceptable between May Day and Labor Day...

If you think about it, this display doesn’t seem to make much sense.  After all, this is the equivalent of hiring a guy with a sign that says ‘This guy’s going to commit criminal activity’ with an arrow pointing at you who follows you around all day with a small mariachi band (if they can be pried away from serenading local cetaceans).  The point being, if you’ve decided to embark upon a life of crime it seems the last thing you’d want to do is draw attention to yourself but gang displays like this are quite clearly designed to do just that.

So, what’s the deal?

Well, I’m glad you asked.  First, I’d like to point out that the paragraph above contained at least one cognitive bias.  It assumes that all criminals would conduct their activity as I would.  As someone with my values, priorities and (de)motivators.  So, my priorities might look something like this:

  • avoid capture/arrest
  • maximize profit
  • conceal my criminal activity from all but the bare minimum of people who are required to facilitate it

To assume everyone else would have those same priorities would be to commit the sin of ‘mirror imaging‘.  From St. Heuer:

One kind of assumption an analyst should always recognize and question is mirror-imaging–filling gaps in the analyst’s own knowledge by assuming that the other side is likely to act in a certain way because that is how the US would act under similar circumstances. To say, “if I were a Russian intelligence officer …” or “if I were running the Indian Government …” is mirror-imaging.

So, let’s kick that ‘Well, if I were a criminal, I’d…” practice to the curb.  While Heuer spoke about other nations we need to be aware that even within the U.S. we have different cultures (or, perhaps, sub-cultures).  Even if we and the members of a criminal organization both were born and raised in the same country, it doesn’t necessarily mean we have the same cultural experience and values.  Many of us experienced life in suburban, middle-class America.  That can be very, very different from the experiences of populations that are socially excluded because of their immigrant, economic, racial or social status.  So, mirror imaging is just as fraught with danger for law enforcement analysts as it is for those analyzing international issues.

Now, let’s take a slight detour and discuss frogs and bats (trust me, this will all connect).

The August 5th edition of the Science podcast had a story about about the mating signals of bats and frogs.  The conventional wisdom is that elaborate mating displays (long peacock feathers, frog or bat calls) are limited by predators.  At some point the mating display becomes so elaborate that it is the evolutionary equivalent of hiring a guy with a sign that says ‘This guy’s looking to get some’ with an arrow pointing at you who follows you around all day with a small mariachi band.

The only problem with conventional wisdom (at least in this case) is that it appears to be wrong.  What really seems to limit the display of these animals is the cognitive abilities of the females (misogynistic joke censored here).  At some point the ladies get overwhelmed with the frog and bat equivalent of bell bottoms, big collars and all that Hai Karate.

So, what does this have to do with gangs?  Well, perhaps gang displays aren’t really limited by law enforcement pressures.  Maybe there’s another (or other) factors that influence how extensive gang displays are.

The Wall Street Journal has an article about a recent study (full study available here) into just that.  Andrew Mell argues that ‘peacocking’ by gang members sends a signal to ‘potential mates’ (drug customers) that basically says:

…I’m still willing to commit crimes when I have this handicap, I must be pretty good at evading the police. Incompetent criminals couldn’t get away with wearing gang colors.

He also theorizes other messages gang members might send through other sorts of behavior.

A competent criminal might decide to sell drugs near a school, precisely because penalties are higher there. Who would dare do that? Only someone awfully confident in his or her shrewdness.

I got to thinking about this and the theory also fits in another way.  Gang members aren’t only worried about attracting customers.  It’s a big, bad world out there and gang members often cite protection as a reason for membership.  Flashy displays of membership broadcast to potential rivals that they might be biting off more than they can chew if they want to pick on particular gang member.  If you are a criminal network and want to control a particularly lucrative drug territory you probably won’t think twice about an aggressive strategy if there’s one lone person running things.  But, if taking action might start a gang war with another large group you might look for other territory.

This may explain why findings like those in the NJ Gang Surveys have identified a growing allegiance to ‘super gangs’ (particularly the Bloods) and the decline of small, neighborhood gangs.  The former at least provide the promise of a much larger pool of potential allies thereby raising the bar for who might comfortably confront them.

Gangs in New Jersey part 3

Today I’d like to talk about how the public and media have responded to the release of 2010 New Jersey Gang Survey. There have been more than a dozen articles published since the report was released.  I’d argue they fall in three basic catagories:

  1. Essentially re-hashes of the press release with little to no additional content
  2. ‘The sky is falling’ spin.  An example is here but it should be noted it’s not the only example.
  3. Good news/bad news

In that last category would be this article which I think is the best of the bunch.

In all cases, however, it’s clear that no one read more than the executive summary.  As a result you can see items taken out of context or misrepresented all over the place.

Worse, are if you dive down a bit deeper and read the comments of the various news stories.  Look, I don’t know what sort of people comment on newspaper stories but it’s clear that most of the people who commented on the stories got such a limited understanding from the stories as to be virtually worthless.

That’s bad since one of the goals of the report was to inform the general public about the gang environment in the state.  While it’s still early, it appears that goal of the report is not headed for success.

So, what could have been done?

Well, I think the public isn’t used to seeing documents like this from their law enforcement agencies.  Even though this is the third public report like this since 2004, it tends to generate concern and panic.  I suspect they just aren’t oriented to know what to do with information like this.   So, perhaps a bit more effort at explaining the report than a press release in a vacuum.  Maybe a briefing prior to publication to journalists (and bloggers?) explaining the report and what might be worthwhile about it?

Just a thought…

Gangs in New Jersey 2010 Part 2

So last time we discussed some of the context and parameters surrounding the New Jersey Street Gang Survey.  Let’s look at some of the more interesting findings of the survey.

First, the authors (on page 17) describe the overall gang environment this way:

this data appears to support the assessment that New Jersey’s gang environment –as measured by the perceptions of municipal law enforcement agencies in the state– can best be described as ‘mature’ and more-or-less at equilibrium.

They base that upon the following data points:

  • “…fewer than half of all respondents (45% or 254 municipalities) indicated the presence of gangs in their jurisdiction during the previous 12 months. This
    proportion remained virtually unchanged from the previous survey in 2007 (43%)
  • The number of respondents unsure whether gangs were present in their jurisdiction remains low (2% of all respondents), possibly indicating that widespread availability of gang awareness training for law enforcement has been effective in allowing local police agencies to identify basic aspects of the gang threat in their communities.
  • Ninety-five (95) municipalities consistently reported the presence of gangs in all three surveys from 2004 to 2010, and 142 municipalities consistently reported the absence of gangs.
  • In 30 municipalities (average pop. 9,817) that responded to all three surveys, the presence of gangs was reported for the first time in 2010. Conversely, nine municipalities (average pop. 19,370) that reported a gang presence in both 2004 and 2007 were ‘gang free’ in 2010.
  • The proportion of 2010 municipalities reporting increased gang activity dropped dramatically compared with levels recorded in both previous surveys; 40% lower than the number of municipalities reporting increased gang activity in the 2007 survey. At the same time, the number of municipalities reporting either no change or a decrease in gang activity increased significantly.

So, overall, I’d say this sets a nice tone for the rest of the document in avoiding the fear mongering and the ‘sky is falling’ mentality we’ve seen far too often in threat assessments over the past few years.  In short, things don’t appear to be getting worse than they were in 2007 from a macro perspective.

How good (or bad) that is depends on how bad things were in 2007 I guess.

Next, while there appeared to be a near universal ability to recognize the presence of street gangs (as demonstrated by the very small number of ‘don’t know’ responses to the question of street gang presence) the survey reveled the presence of widespread and significant intelligence gaps among gangs.  As the authors describe it:

The survey identified widespread information gaps regarding the organizational characteristics of gangs. The lack of such information makes it difficult to assess the cohesion, capabilities, structure and threat of gangs in many parts of the state.

Now it may be that the survey administrators were simply asking the wrong people about organizational characteristics.  It may be that municipal police departments simply aren’t equipped to identify and track questions of organizational structure, cohesion, intent, ideology, and criminal activity that may span jurisdictions.  Since the State Police were conducting this survey and asking these questions can it be assumed that they don’t know the answers?  In that case, who would?  Expecting the federal authorities to be able to have such an understanding of the 244 distinct gangs (let alone the 1,575 gang sets) within just one state might be more than one could reasonably expect.  In short, it may mean that no one really has a good handle on these questions.

While so many gangs were identified in the survey, it’s interesting that there were some noticeable absences.  Again, from the report:

Prior investigations…have identified the presence of a wider variety of criminal networks that meet the definition of street gangs than are reported in this survey. Criminal networks with identities and members tied to nations or regions in Europe, Asia and Africa have been common in New Jersey and the surrounding area for decades, and the lack of any mention in the 2010 Street Gang Survey is worthy of note.

It is unclear whether this reflects a perception among respondents that criminal organizations originating in other regions should not be considered street gangs; if these other criminal networks no longer are present in the state; or if they recently have been successful in avoiding the notice of law enforcement.

Very interesting because this may indicate a bias (intended or not) about what gangs are that overlays any legal definition that our criminal justice system uses.  New Jersey has a number of large, ethnic populations and immigrant communities, many of whom have brought with them or developed an organized criminal component.  Certainly some academics have reported the willingness to label criminal networks of young minorities with the ‘gang’ moniker with more frequency than similar networks of white youth.  This could be a serious intelligence gap since if criminal networks like those from Albania, Vietnam, China and other places aren’t captured as ‘gangs’, under whose watch will they be?

You may have occasionally heard, over the years, about the dangers of prison radicalization.  Particularly the dangers of radical Muslim clerics converting criminals to Islam and convincing them to take up jihad.  This report doesn’t discuss that directly but asked some questions about radicalization and the influence of prisoners on gang activity on the streets.  The results indicate that, at least in New Jersey, this isn’t a big problem:

Of the 254 municipalities reporting the presence of a gang in the 2010 Street Gang Survey, less than one dozen reported gangs involved in extremist ideologies.

It should be noted here that some gangs that were included in the survey were various white supremacist groups who you would associate with the term ‘extremist ideology’.  Some of those groups were identified as possessing extremist ideologies but others were not which raises some questions.  I mean, what’s the point of being a skinhead if you aren’t a racist?  Those few answers may have been the result of survey fatigue or some of the same biases which led to some criminal groups not being included as I discussed above.  It may be that the term ‘extremist ideology’ carried some sort of connotation which the respondent couldn’t apply to the group(s) in his/her jurisdiction.

In any case, let’s not get too worried about legions of ex-cons wanting to institute Sharia law.

I have no idea how popular radical or extremist ideology is in prisons but if the responses given in this survey is correct we might want to think of prison a bit like Las Vegas:  What happens there, stays there.  Except of course, there aren’t any hookers, booze or Circe de Soleil shows in prison.

Perhaps because I had a rather bad school experience I’m always considering the parallels between prison and schools when it comes to gangs.  Not being a parent myself, I’m not sure if the findings in the report are reassuring or not.  Among municipalities that reported the presence of gangs…

Half (50%) of those municipalities did not note the presence of gangs in their schools, while 46% of municipalities did have a gang presence within their schools.

That means roughly 20% of municipalities in New Jersey have schools with a gang presence in them.  While that (just like gang presence generally) is essentially unchanged from 2007, I don’t know if I have enough information to put that number into a wider context.

Some common perceptions of gangs came in for some rough treatment from the survey.  For example:

  • More than half of all gangs identified in New Jersey have fewer than six members
  • Half of all gangs were not reported to be involved in drug distribution crimes.
  • Relatively few gangs are reported to be engaged in inter-gang conflict.
  • While we’ve all heard of gang rivalries (e.g. bloods vs. crips) the data seems to indicate that intra-gang conflict (bloods vs. bloods, etc.) is ‘at least as common’.  In short, Blood is NOT thicker than water.

The latter half of the report is a number of specific gang profiles based upon the survey data.  Each of the 14 profiles goes into more detail about the gang’s criminal activity, membership and organizational characteristics.  Check it out and amaze your friends with your ability to spout obscure gang details.

Next time:  Product response…

Gangs in New Jersey 2010 Part 1

Ah, I know that ever since 2007 when I wrote about the New Jersey Gang Survey you’ve been anxiously checking your calendar and sitting on the edge of your seats for the 2010 edition to come out.  I’m sure you were disappointed to see 2010 come and go with nary a peep about the survey results and feared that 2011 was indeed heralding a new dark age.

Well, fear not gentle reader.  The 2010 edition of the ’Gangs in New Jersey’ report published by the New Jersey State Police is now out!  I’m going to follow roughly the same procedure as in 2007 where I discuss some of the context surrounding the report, followed by the findings that I thought may have been buried or missed and (if it applies) reactions form the public and media to the report.  If I can muster up the energy I’ll wrap everything up with a nice conclusion of how this sort of thing can inform law enforcement intelligence efforts and drive operations (if you’ve got a system in place to handle that, of course).

Ready?  Let’s go…

New Jersey is an unnecessarily complicated state.  A tiny state of around 9 million people (roughly the same amount as the nation of Sweden) it boasts almost 566 municipalities with almost 500 independent municipal police departments plus law enforcement agencies focused in the state’s 21 counties (prosecutor’s offices, sheriffs, etc.), state agencies (State Police, Department of Criminal Justice, etc.) and federal agencies (ATF, FBI, etc.).  The survey was focused only at the municipal level of law enforcement, therefore:

Survey responses for municipalities that do not maintain their own full-time police department were collected from the agency that provides law enforcement and public safety services to the municipality –either the New Jersey State Police or another municipal police department that has contracted with the municipality in question.

The approach was successful with the survey people collecting information on all 566 municipalities in the state and only one municipality (the grand metropolis of Elizabeth) declining to participate.

One important thing to keep in mind when thinking about this (or similar) products is that this sort of product isn’t (and shouldn’t claim to be) describing reality.  Rather, it’s describing other people’s perception of reality.  As the report says in its limitations section (a section missing far too frequently in intelligence assessments and reports):

The 2010 Street Gang Survey, like those that preceded it, is a survey that measures perceptions of the New Jersey gang environment at the municipal level…Responses are subjective, reflecting an individual survey respondent’s perception based on his/her training and experience..individual officers may vary in the way that they interpret the definition of ‘street gang,’ so that some criminal networks whose activities fit the official criteria may subjectively be deemed to be some other type of criminal group (but not a street gang) and thus excluded from consideration for inclusion in the survey.

…In addition, the presence or perceived presence of gangs can have significant political, economic and social consequences for municipalities. At times, depending on the circumstances of a particular time and place, a political rationale may exist to either deny –or exaggerate– the presence of gangs…The responses that resulted may or may not represent the ‘official’ position of a particular police department or municipal administration.

Keep that in mind.

The goal of the survey has remained constant since its first public release in 2004:  ”to provide law enforcement, policy makers and the general public with a better understanding of the state’s gang environment.”  It’s gotten better at doing that over time in (at least) two important ways:

  • Beginning in 2008, all of the underlying data for the surveys was released to the public.  Granted, the format is pretty confusing and non-researchers would have to be extremely motivated to really work with the data but (I assume) it was an important psychological barrier to cross in order to get a law enforcement agency (which are generally known for not disclosing information like this on general principles) to release such data without being asked for it.

The release of the underlying data creates the possiblity for others to not only take it and conduct their own analysis of it but (hopefully) mash it up with other datasets and gain more insights

  • Let’s face it, these reports are long (the current one clocks in at almost 160 pages) and are not likely to knock Dan Brown off the NY Times bestseller list anytime soon.  Written by an official, stuffy organization it’s style is going to reflect that and, likely, turn off potential readers among the general public.  Further, most people are going to be interested in information not in the report.  Specifically, ‘What the hell is going on in my town?’  Any attempt by the authors to write an assessment of the gang environment in each of the 254 towns that reported a gang presence would have lengthened the report greatly and increased the time and resources needed to complete it beyond the capabilities of the organization to complete it (I guess).

So, the authors conducted an outreach program (more on this in the future) with computer science departments in a number of universities to create an accessible interface for users to interact with the report’s underlying data and conduct their own queries (and, hopefully, do their own analysis) of the results.  The first one is available for viewing here.

This sort of project takes a great deal of time and effort and after reviewing the three surveys done from 2004-2010 I suspect this is probably as far as you can go without formalizing this process.  Indeed, the authors state that in their conclusions (spoiler alert!) when they say:

This function should be permanently assigned to staff who will extend the results of the formal follow-up initiative recommended above by establishing a systematic process for designing survey questionnaires; scheduling and coordinating survey interviews; managing data collection and error correction; conducting analysis of the results, and producing a series of reports…

One thing that should be recognized is that, as far as I know, there’s simply no other publicly releasable product out there like this in the country.  There are other agencies that do gang surveys but they tend to be rather haphazard affairs relying of voluntary responses, rely on too small of a sample size and/or have poorly worded questions among other issues.  In their defense I think we can say that law enforcement agencies generally don’t have the training, time or resources to conduct surveys like this and are doing the best they can (and if you look at the New Jersey survey of 2004 you’ll easily find many, MANY flaws).  Still, if we’re serious about things like Intelligence Led Policing, it’s products like this that establish the parameters of the criminal environment that will provide a baseline understanding of what’s going on and allow for the design and implementation of effective anti-crime strategies.

Next time:  Let’s dig into the findings…

Beta testers needed for gang data website

A university team I know is putting together a website which displays publicly available street gang data.  They’re going to need some beta testers however to give the system a once over and provide some feedback as to its usability.  They’re looking at the testing taking place from (approximately) the 19th of November to the 23rd.

It shouldn’t be a heavy lift and you don’t need to have any knowledge or gangs and you can spend as much (or as little) time poking around the data as you’d like.

If there are any interested parties out there, please contact me at TwShiloh (at) gmail (dot) com.

CNAS talks gang gibberish

I was really excited to hear that CNAS was gong to take a look at gangs, drug cartels and instability throughout the Western Hemisphere.  I took a look at the document last night and was thoroughly disappointed.  If your central thesis is “the United States is under attack, domestically and afield, by a networked
criminal insurgency that must be defeated” you better be able to substantiate that claim.

Instead, there are a lot of assertions without support, uncritical acceptance of opinion as fact and arguments hung upon structures of unexamined assumptions.  I can’t speak to the parts of the document that deal with events south of the border but their description of events in the United States and characterizations of the criminal environment here must draw their entire work into question.

So, where to begin?  Let’s start with the assertion that the U.S. is facing an ‘insurgency’ and is under attack.  If you’ve read this blog for any length of time you’ll know that I often argue that there are a lot of lessons to be learned by the military regarding COIN from experiences here in America, particularly areas where the rule of law has broken down and criminal networks have moved in to supplement  an apathetic government (usually in economically devastated, socially excluded urban areas).  Likewise, I remain convinced that there are lessons from the military experience in COIN that could have a positive benefit to law enforcement operations here in the U.S.

That is very different from saying that I think there’s an insurgency here.  The authors even seem to realize they overstretched when they used that term by almost immediately walking it back in this way….

An insurgency is actually an attempt to weaken or
disrupt the functions of government,

Using that definition, I expect upcoming CNAS titles to include “Che and Jon Stewart:  A profile of two insurgents”, or perhaps “Why citizens protesting local zoning laws are the new VeitCong”.  That definition can include such a wide range of activities (both intentional and accidental) to be almost meaningless.

To demonstrate that the gang threat in the United States is growing, the authors use the fact that the FBI has an MS-13 task force.  Uh…that’s been around for awhile and it might be worthwhile to look into the question of whether the FBI’s focus on MS-13 was due to any attempted assessment of the group’s threat or if it was a knee jerk response to a couple of grisly murders in the Washington D.C. area that caused a bunch of high level civil servants and politicians to begin demanding the FBI do something.  I’m not saying MS-13 made up of a bunch of dangerous dudes but the fact that the FBI created a task force is indicative of nothing other than the fact that the FBI can create task forces.

But don’t worry about MS-13 because the Bloods and Crips “are far more organizationally and operationally sophisticated than international rivals like MS-13 and others.”

If the Bloods and Crips are the ‘gold standard’ for organizational and operational sophistication I think we can all relax.  These groups, by and large, are disparate, engage in endless infighting and most have a great deal of difficulty in coordinating activity.  The only thing that really keeps them together is the potential for huge profits from narcotics sales (thanks Uncle Sam!).  They exist because of our current prohibition system.  While the authors assert that criminal networks supplement their income with other crimes (like kidnapping) they are unable to prove (or really even make a decent case) that these organizations would be able to survive in anything like their current state without their narcotics income.  The fact of the matter is that these other crimes are generally ancillary ones that occur because of the narcotics trade and aren’t independent of it.

I was starting to smell something fishy as I was going through this report and then I found it….my nemesis.  So readers are treated to this bullshit about generational gangs again in a desperate attempt to fit the ideas of Lind and generations of warfare into the criminal world.  Argh!  Nothing like giving a crap theory legitimization without having it being given any scrutiny.

And, of course, we have to push all the fear buttons so the author’s make sure to say that this insurgency is linked to crime and terrorism (!) in new, dangerous ways!  Oh, god…where’s my duct tape?  Where’s the freakin’ duct tape?!  So, without any real evidence the authors try to assert that there are these mysterious transnational criminal networks that control all the evil in the hemisphere from the mass production of narcotics all the way down to bullying your kid in the school yard.  It’s all being planned, organized and controlled.

Now, let me be very, very clear.  I’m not saying that transnational criminal networks don’t exist.  Or that criminal groups don’t threaten the general public and some communities.  I just argue that 1) this isn’t as new as is being asserted and 2) there simply isn’t enough information to support wide eyed claims of broad, highly coordinated threats.  The plural of anecdote isn’t data.

I couldn’t even finish the document.  Don’t waste your time.

There may be a dumber idea…but I'm not sure I can think of it.

I totally get the fact that we’re a sensation craving, superficial society (how else to explain the Double Down?) but I still get surprised by some of the more wild ideas out there.

The latest (h/t boingboing) is something called ‘L.A. Gang Tours‘.  Yes for the low, low price of $65 (usually $100!) you get:

…a true first-hand encounter of the history and origin of high profile gang areas and the top crime scene locations in South Central, Los Angeles. Each tour bus for LA GANG TOURS will have a guide from the South Central areas who has gained hands-on knowledge and experience of the inner city lifestyle.

So, in other words, you get to ride around in a bus while somebody tells you that some dude got shot here over some bullshit grudge or over there because some other dude tried to sell some bad weed…

Is this something America and the rest of the world is really calling out for?

Now, I will say that it appears the motivation of the organizer is quite good.  He states the goal is to:

…create jobs for the residents of South Central, Los Angeles; to give profits from the tours back to these areas for economic growth and development, provide job/entrepreneur training, micro-financing opportunities and to specialize in educating people from around the world about the Los Angeles inner city lifestyle, gang involvement and solutions.

Hey, I’m all for that but this is a bit exploitative of the community and does have some risk.  I can only imagine the subtle forces that could create all sorts of problems.  Will headline grabbing news of violence or gang activity attract pathetic thrill seekers and gawkers?  Might that drive more outrageous activity, especially if any of the money ends up going to some of these gang members?  I suspect it might, directly or indirectly based on this statement from their website:

Your participation allows the success of a cease-fire agreement between three of the largest and most notorious gangs in L.A. history. This agreement will allow young people and children safe passage (gun fire free safety zones).

I’m not sure why you couldn’t look for other ways to get small business opportunities to residents of South Central.  The fair trade movement could be a goal but it would require a shift in thinking that everyone can jump into the high skill, education reliant economy in one jump.  If we could get cities to quit building all these moronic mega-projects in the hopes of ‘revitalizing’ their cities (it’s like they went to the Stalin and Chairman Mao school of the Great Leap Forward) and instead accept the fact that many of their cities are going to get smaller, not have a significant manufacturing base or a pool of highly skilled workers and deal with it.  Identify land which can go to pasture and encourage small scale (boutique) farming to feed the booming organic/local food markets.  How about manufacturing of handicrafts and small cooperatives for light manufacturing or semi-skilled labor?

Look, I’m neither an economist or an urban planner and I shouldn’t knock somebody for trying to improve the community.  If this is the best we can do, however, I think we’re in some trouble.

Gangs in New Jersey

The Asbury Park Press is running a 7 part series on street gangs in Monmouth and Ocean counties.

Only the first three parts are up as of today but I’ve got some initial thoughts on what’s up so far.

First, let me get this out of the way without further comment.  Draw your own conclusions about why I link to it…

If you’re going to expend the time and resources to produce a big project like this you better make some pretty bold statements.  Saying “Meh…It ain’t that bad”, probably won’t cut it.  Unfortunately, when you talk about gangs it’s easy to get into the realm of unsubstantiated statements like the following:

“…gangs the No.1 threat to residents of the Shore and New Jersey, according to law enforcement authorities at all levels.”

I have no idea how they came to that conclusion.  I’m not saying they’re wrong but law enforcement agencies aren’t really known for coming up with rigorous (or even slapdash) criteria and metrics so I’d be surprised if this sort of statement doesn’t have it’s origin firmly in anecdotal evidence, fuzzy definitions and unexamined assumptions.

“They commit, according to the 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment, 80 percent of the crime in communities nationwide.”

A highly dubious number that the threat assessment distanced itself from in its own report.

Some of the sources of information for the stories were gang members.  While their bona fides were apparently confirmed with local authorities, the authors appeared to take their claims at face value.  For example:

“We’re planning for the future,” said a Latin King who long has played a leadership role in the Central Jersey-based branch of the gang that’s highly structured and business-oriented. “Kings are very versatile. Financiers? Sometimes those bigwigs are Latin Kings. We’ve got Kings on Wall Street.”

Yeah…that might be true but it should be noted that the Latin Kings have been singing that same tune for almost 20 years now.  They have demonstrated a better ability to organize than other street gangs and have expressed an interest in expanding into legitimate businesses for some time but don’t go thinking they’re sitting on the board of Goldman Sachs or anything.  That’s a different type of crook.

A member of the Sex Money Murder set of the Bloods known as “P” said he leads with military precision some 5,700 members of his Bloods set who live in Monmouth County.

Just for some context here.  Monmouth County, New Jersey has a population of 642,000.  A Bloods population (remember that’s separate from any other gang members in the county) of 5,700 members would be .88% of the country population.  Think about that for a second.  Approximately 5,700 members of a highly disciplined organization that’s able to do all the things the term ‘military precision’ entails while being able to keep such an organization a secret from authorities.  Are we really to believe that an organization which would outnumber the combined size of all law enforcement agencies in the county would confine itself to the shadows?  That is, after all, about twice the size of a Brigade Combat Team.  So, like one does with ancient historians, best to divide all estimates of the size of forces by 10…

It is a shame they let a quote like that go unchallenged, especially since it’s so out of whack and there is evidence to contradict it.

Gang leaders frequently state that they want skilled members to assist the gang in making the transition from petty street crimes (narcotic sales, extortion, etc.) to more profitable organized criminal activity.  The problem has always been that their recruitment pool has generally come from the same place; socio-economic depressed areas where the skills and chances of social mobility are low.  You’ve got a small pool of people who will complete high school, have the money and/or interest in attending college to choose from.  Further, the work required to get those skills the gang thinks it wants requires an investment in time that it’s not clear gangs are willing to make in a systematic way.

Gang spokespeople also like to talk about developing skills in a way similar to spy agencies developing moles but I haven’t seen any evidence that there’s much appetite for that sort of long term investment on the part of gangs OR patience on the part of members who usually join gangs to do something other than go to school get a job and spend years getting into position to make a big score.

Gangs in schools (primary, secondary and university level) is a subject of much speculation and little fact.  The subject is delicate since it involves children and money and the general response from authorities has been to avoid looking or commenting on it with too much detail.  As a result it’s hard to know what’s really going on in any educational facilities with any degree of confidence.  Universities, in particular, have a reputation for avoiding discussions about crime on their campuses (After all, how would you feel about dropping 35k-50k a year for your kid to go to a school reported presence of organized crime groups?) and gang issues are no different.

In this regard, prisons and schools share some commonalities.  Both have captive populations and authorities of both are unable/unwilling to look to deeply at the extent to which gangs operate in their facilities.  Both are the primary points of recruitment (gangs generally don’t knock on doors or leave fliers announcing a recruitment drive) and yet receive little in the way of attention or resources to counter.

Gangs in New Jersey were increasing in size, scope and territory, the State Commission of Investigation concluded that “highly structured super-gangs” were, in effect, supplanting La Cosa Nostra in many areas of the state.

Here’s where the term ‘gang’ is showing its inadequacy.  When you have a term that can encapsulate both a trio of graffiti artists who occasionally sell marijuana and a highly organized network that engages in sophisticated and/or highly violent activities, the label begins to lose its value.

The stereotype of the typical gang member as being a street thug is being debunked in recent reports issued by the National Gang Intelligence Center, the State Commission of Investigation and the State Police.

I don’t think that’s the case at all.  The vast majority of gang criminality (at least according to this report):

“…tend to be ‘crimes of opportunity’ or ‘impulse crimes’ rather than crimes requiring planning, resources or organization.”

That’s not to say that some gangs aren’t breaking with that stereotype but just that the stereotype is probably still valid in the majority of cases.  In fact, one could argue that once a network has broken the stereotype they should no longer be considered a ‘gang’ and rather should be declared some other type of criminal group.

More later if it’s warranted.

Bizarre Swedish Crime Story Friday

You can’t make this stuff up…

Black Cobra gang steals selection of small cakes

If you’re going to go in the confectionery theft business you better have a pretty tough name or the other gangs will totally make fun of you.  It should be noted that the Black Cobras are supposed to be Danish (Damn you Denmark!  They’re the bullies of Scandinavia.)  They had a reputation for trafficking in narcotics and extortion but have apparently decided to muscle their way into the lucrative snack food market.

Criminals with connections to the Black Cobra network are suspected by police of pilfering 120 boxes of almond tarts, punch rolls, apple crowns and brownies from a delivery truck in southern Sweden on Thursday.

Ah…but the police are on the job.  Bottom line, don’t get between cops and their donuts…even in Sweden.

“We have conducted raids at a number of addresses and have confiscated cakes,” police spokesperson Charley Nilsson told local newspaper Helsingborgs Dagblad.