Gang busters

04/14/04

USC sociologist challenges gang myths

When people think of street gangs, they often imagine a cohesive group of youths, heavily involved in violence and drugs with entire neighborhoods in their control.

That's a misperception that Malcolm Klein, a professor emeritus of sociology in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, aims to correct in his new book "Gang Cop: The Words and Ways of Officer Paco Domingo" (Altamira Press, 2004).

Domingo is a fictional character, an amalgam of police officers Klein has encountered during his roughly 40 years of gang research. But fictional or not, Domingo holds views that typify a basic misunderstanding of gangs by real police, Klein contends.

"Over the years, I've become increasingly frustrated that most of the things we do for gangs and to gangs is counterproductive, based on false information, false mythology about what gangs are really like," Klein said.

"Since most of what people know is incorrect, I'm trying to make the correction," he said.

When Klein started studying gangs in 1963, they were present in about 50 jurisdictions nationwide. That number, he said, has since grown to more than 3,500.

Many police departments have formed elite gang units to combat the problem. That, the researcher said, can be a problem in and of itself.

"The gang unit tends to be separated out from the rest of the department, responsible only unto itself. It tends to draw the cowboys, and if you have John Wayne and he's not supervised, then he does a lot of things that you would rather he didn't do," Klein said.

"Many departments don't allow their units to get separated out this way, but those that do are asking for trouble because there is a kind of cohesiveness that develops in the gang unit. Some of them are ex-Marines, and they bring this with them to begin with."

An example of how this model failed was found in Oakland, where a group of four officers known as the "Riders" were accused of faking arrests, planting evidence and beating suspects. It cost the city $10.9 million to settle the cases of 119 alleged victims.

But the best example may be the LAPD's Rampart scandal, which seriously damaged the department's reputation and resulted in the overturning of nearly 150 cases.

In one startling example of how elite gang cops can consider themselves above the law, LAPD officers Rafael Perez and Nino Durden shot Javier Ovando, an unarmed gang member, and then planted a firearm on him so they could claim self-defense. Ovando, paralyzed for life, was awarded $15 million.

These elite gang units can foster a cop like Domingo, Klein said, who is described in the book as "a trooper, an outsider whose narrow world within the cohesive gang unit provided the final, validating context for his John Wayne attitudes."

Those attitudes, combined with a fundamental misunderstanding of the true nature of street gangs, lead to ineffective methods of dealing with them, Klein said.

"The sad part of this is that there is virtually nothing that has been documented that works to reduce gang violence," he said.

To understand gangs is first to define them, according to Klein.

Gangs are any street oriented youth group that exists at least six months and considers illegal activity to be part of its identity. Its members' ages range from 11 to the mid-30s, with the median age in the late teens.

According to Klein, gangs are often stereotyped by police officers who miss the following points.

The majority of gang activity is noncriminal and most gang crimes, when committed, are minor, such as vandalism, drug use, and petty theft.

Street gangs are social groups with only moderate levels of cohesiveness.

Street life is seen as a right, so the harassment of members on the street strikes them as being mean-spirited and illegal, thus contributing to their contempt for police officers.

"If they're all stereotyped as being lost causes or violent drug sellers, then we're not going to apply any other resources to them, nor are we going to try and change the community that is spawning them, which is another major issue," Klein said.

The key is to expand this "myopic view" of gangs and approach the problem differently, he said.

Here, according to Klein, is what not to do.

Don't do anything to legitimize the gang, such as harassing its members on the corner. It reinforces their identity as gang members.

Don't pass anti-gang legislation. It makes gangs feel different and special.

Don't have gang workers, have youth workers. Have youth programs instead of gang programs.

"Without these things, you're just reinforcing everything you want to get rid of," Klein said. "Forget the gang affiliation, if at all possible, and see them as individuals."

Klein also finds programs like DARE (Drug Awareness and Resistance Education) and GREAT (Gang Resistance, Education and Training) to be "almost totally ineffective in preventing drug use and gang joining."

His goal is to pass these messages to the police and the public.

"I'm not a novelist. I'm an academic. I'm using this book to teach," Klein said.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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