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Research – Gangs and Groups Violence

  • A girl is surrounded by 10 other girls who push her to the ground, kick her and punch her in the face and steal her leather jacket (Edmonton)
  • An 18-year-old man is stabbed in the abdomen in an attack by at least seven youth (Winnipeg)
  • A 15-year-old girl cannot walk down the street without being harassed, threatened or forced to turn over money to a group of five girls (Toronto)
  • 20-year-old man shot; believed to be linked to continuing conflict between two gangs (Halifax)
  • A 23-year-old woman and a 25-year-old man were shot and killed when trying to stop a fight outside a bar (Vancouver)

While not a new phenomenon in Canada, gang/group violence is becoming much harder to dismiss as “boys being boys”. Not only are girls becoming more involved in gang/group activity, but the violence seems to be becoming more random, more vicious, and more extreme. While overall violence among youth is decreasing gang/group membership greatly increases the prevalence and frequency of serious and violent crime for both males and females. This paper will discuss one of the most defining characteristics of delinquent gang/group activity, the use of, prevalence of, and characteristics of their violence.

Definitions of a Gang/Group

Are groups of youth who loiter on a street corner or at a shopping centre a gang? Are groups who get into occasional fistfights gangs? Are groups who steal or vandalize property considered a gang? If a group uses a gun once, is it a gang? If a group uses sticks and bats but not knives and guns, is it a gang? Many argue that, “if a group is willing to use enough violence to kill others, whether in defence or aggression, then it should be considered a gang” (Sanders, 1994). While others argue that violence need not be a defining characteristic for a group to be considered a gang (some police forces define a gang as a group of three or more individuals who form an alliance for the purpose of engaging in criminal activity) the distinction between a “gang'” and a “group” should not matter. As Gordon (1998) explains:

“The term ‘gang’ can be a misleading way of describing different kinds of gatherings of young people. The term 'gang/group' is preferred as a better way of capturing the phenomenon; and analysts and policy-makers should be thinking in terms of a continuum ranging from a group of friends who spend time together and occasionally get into trouble to more serious, organized criminal groups or gangs”.

According to the Montréal Police Service’s definition (2011), a gang is “an organized group of adolescents and/or young adults who rely on group intimidation and violence, and commit criminal acts in order to gain power and recognition and/or control certain areas of unlawful activity.”

The universal use of the word “gang” to refer in the media to any situation that involves more than one person all too often creates a misleading stereotype, thus the term “gang/group” is used to avoid such criminal stereotypes and exaggerated media images usually associated with the term “gang”. As University of Toronto researchers, Doob et al (1998) explain, “it is important not to equate offending in groups with 'gangs'. If one defines a gang as a relatively stable, somewhat organized, group with clear or formal leadership, most groups of young people that commit offences do not qualify as ‘gangs’”.

All too often, we read of “Asian gangs” or “Native gangs” in the media, and it is important to eliminate the perception that violent youth gang/groups consist solely of visible minorities or immigrant groups – it’s just that “Caucasians avoid the label ‘gang’ because the media does not identify them by race” (Fasilio & Leckie, 1993). Violent gang/groups are racially diverse; most are primarily male, some are female; they are from lower class communities, middle class communities, and upper class communities.

The Prevalence of Gangs/Groups and Their Violence

Some contend that too much has been made of gang/group violence; that the problem is overstated and blown out of proportion by sensational crimes. Others believe that the gang problem is out of control and police unable to protect people from crime. While the latter view may be a little pessimistic, some researchers do believe, “the trend for gang crime, especially gang violence, has been upward in scope and severity at least since the mid-1980's”. From a Canadian perspective, Judge Penny Jones (1997) adds that we have seen a “falling crime rate among 12-17 year olds. The only counter trend is the increase in violent crime among this age group and especially worrisome is the phenomenon of group assault of a single victim or ‘swarming’”.

Youth gangs are not just an urban phenomenon; they are active across the country in both large and small communities. The Canadian Police Survey on Youth Gangs, as well as other sources, suggest that youth gangs are a growing concern in many Canadian jurisdictions, although not yet to the same extent as in the United States. Almost twice the percentage of jurisdictions in the U.S. report active youth violence as compared with Canadian jurisdictions. Almost half (48%) of all youth gang members are under the age of eighteen; most (39%) are between sixteen and eighteen years old (2004).

Studies on youth gangs/groups report the following:

  • Youth involved in violent acts and gang/group activity are getting younger in age. It is not uncommon now to find students in grades 1 or 2 committing serious acts of violence;
  • Girls are becoming more directly involved in gang/group assaults and are using weapons such as guns and knives;
  • The presence of guns and gun replicas in schools, and the widespread presence of other weapons;
  • School boards are reporting an increase in verbal and physical assaults on teachers and vandalism of teachers' cars and other property;
  • The individual schoolyard bully has been largely replaced by a group of youth who commit assaults and thefts;
  • Students are reporting that they often do not feel safe at school or while walking to school;
  • Extortion and drug dealing is becoming a routine part of the school day in some communities;
  • Intruders have become a serious problem for many schools;

Although Toronto used to be the “national centre” for violent youth gang/group activity in Canada, police officers, courts, and communities across the country are becoming increasingly aware of their presence not only in the larger cities but also in medium-sized and small cities, in towns, and in suburban communities. Gang violence has been on the rise for the past two decades; Vancouver seems to have become its new centre, due to the fact that it is a hub for the production and export of marijuana. Drug trading in British Columbia generates an estimated 7 billion dollars a year, which creates an attractive gang culture. A Vancouver policeman said, “handguns are as ubiquitous as cellphones” (2008).

  • Youth is broadly defined as individuals 30 years of age and younger
  • Youth join gangs for power, money, respect, status and sense of belonging
  • In 2002, 434 youth gangs were reportedly active across Canada with approximately 7,000 members – 0.02% of total population
  • Illicit drug distribution is the most prominent financial drive for youth gangs
  • 71 homicides in Canada in 2004 were determined to be “gang-related”; 50 involved a firearm
  • In 2004, approximately 24,000 gangs were active in US (760,000 members; 29,000 jurisdictions) – 0.26% of total population
  • Effective responses to address youth gangs rely on a combination of prevention, intervention and suppression programs
  • Gangs are found to be more prevalent in neighbourhoods where the community network is weaker, with few ties among individuals or between residents and conventional community institutions.
Underreporting

While many government reports indicate that youth crime is on the decline, police say those figures are misleading because of underreporting – teenagers are afraid to speak up because of the nature of gang/group violence:

"Teen victims are extremely reluctant to report their victimization because of fear of retaliation; fear of getting friends or neighbourhood peers into trouble with the law; fear of not being believed or that nothing will be done by adult authorities which would leave the youth exposed to further violence and to ostracism; fear of being perceived as a 'rat' or tattletale; fear of appearing friendless, vulnerable, and socially rejected; and fear that parents will be upset with them for 'losing' articles of clothing or other possessions." (Mathews)

According to the Vancouver Police Department (2010), there are two main reasons for the under-reporting of gang violence; a lack of faith in the criminal justice system and the belief that the crime was deserved. Many people believe that the criminal justice system cannot effectively protect them if they choose to participate in a prosecution; this belief is very common. On the other hand, some victims of gang violence are themselves participating in some sort of criminal organization and accept whatever “punishment” they have experienced for a real or perceived transgression that offended the leader of their group; these victims see the violence against them as a by-product of the life they chose to lead. Most gang-related crimes – extortion, intimidation, assaults – are based on fear. Fear breeds silence.

The Media’s Role and its Influence

Perhaps, one of the media’s largest critics in Canada is University of Saskatchewan professor Bernard Schissel who argues that:

"When youth gang violence occurs, it is undeniably a problem in need of intervention. I do not mean to trivialize the problem. I do wish, though, to suggest that the plague of gang violence is exaggerated and, most importantly, that the images of gang members in the media are based on stereotypes of class, race and family background that both foster and play into already existing stereotypes. In effect, the concept 'gang' has become a linguistic referent or code word that fosters powerful visceral reactions against visible minority youth and street kids".

Mr. Schissel is not alone in this opinion. A Canadian study of media coverage of gangs found that "the media’s characterization centres on portrayals that depict gangs as being a modern phenomenon, widespread, and a threat to society". Such depictions of the apparent "widespread presence of gangs generates a 'moral panic' that, paradoxically, may do more to spur the growth of gangs than actually combat what may not even be a serious problem to begin with". An example of such a 'moral panic' was demonstrated when a Toronto Star series on teen gangs in October of 1998 suggested that there around 180 street gangs in Toronto alone. Police chief David Boothby and mayor Mel Lastman, shortly thereafter stepped in to calm shocked parents and communities, noting that police intelligence had identified about 80 street gangs operating in the city, only 20 of which were “hard core gangs”.

According to an RCMP study conducted in 2006, “the media plays a substantial role in defining the parameters of youth gang discourse;” the media in Canada and the U.S. has the greatest influence on the way youth gangs are perceived by Canadians.

  • Interest increases with incidents identified as gang-related
  • Media reports largely suggest that gang activity as a whole is escalating
  • Seen as “sensationalizing” the issues, often producing reactions of fear and anxiety in general public

As Danny Holland, a speaker at a Gang Conference stated, “the mass media, whether it be music, television, movies or video games, desensitizes juveniles.”

Characteristics of Group/Gang Violence

Most violent street crimes committed by youth, are committed in groups; the violence committed by gangs/groups is often shocking in its ferocity. Furthermore, gang activity today is much more violent than ten years ago; lethal weapons like sophisticated knives and guns are increasingly common. Popular stereotypes of gangs and gang members depict them as highly organized and violent predators on society – while some of this may be true, most gangs are not that well organized and many of their crimes are impulsive rather than with any directed purpose. This lack of organization coupled with their large arsenal makes them that much more dangerous. One study found that gang incidents are generally more chaotic with more people, weapons, offences, and injuries out in the open, among people less familiar with each other. Furthermore, it has been shown that most street gangs are only loosely structured, with temporary leadership and membership, an abstract sense of loyalty and informal rather than formal member roles. Very few youth gangs meet the criteria for classification as “organized crime” groups.

While much gang/group violence is between the groups themselves, an increasing trend of violence is “swarmings” – in which a group surrounds and assaults a single victim. Other destructive gang/group activities include defacement of property,  intimidation and extortion, vandalism, theft, assault, drug trafficking, stabbings, shootings and sometimes murder. Gangs also instil a sense of fear and anxiety in some communities.

Gangs of the past were comprised of tightly-knit groups of youth who frequently engaged in hand-to-hand conflict; fists or baseball bats were the weapons of choice. Nowadays, the use of weapons such as guns or knives is more common, as well as the hurting of innocent bystanders. Changes in our culture have sparked changes in the types of gangs/groups we see, as well as the nature of their conflicts. A Montreal police officer supports this by saying that in the past the English and French communities used to fight; however, now, we have over 40 different ethnicities in the same neighbourhoods, all with easy access to weapons. Clearly, some focus needs to be put on reducing growing tensions and hatred between races and ethnicities.

While much focus is on male gang/group violence, females are becoming much more involved as well. Female gang members fight with knives, bricks, ice picks, guns, box cutters, and razor blades; they sell drugs and commit violence crimes against citizens. According to the Bureau of Justice, in the period from 1998-2004, the adult female jail and prison population increased about 5% each year, while the male population rose by only 3.3% each year (Sillup, 2010). In May of 2008, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) found that 29.4% of girls and 32.4% of boys in high-risk, high-crime neighborhoods claimed gang membership. However, females involved in gangs are believed to join and leave gangs at an earlier age and at a faster rate than males.

Understanding Gang/Group Violence

Decker and Van Winkle (1996) propose three reasons why the level of violence is so high among gangs/groups: (1) gangs/groups are organized for violence, (2) gangs/groups amplify violence, and (3) gang/group membership is selected for violence. These reasons are still true today.

Gangs/groups are organized for violence:
  • Honour in gangs is key to understanding their violence; members commit much of their violence in honour of another member or a leader.
  • The effect of violence on gang cohesion or solidarity – group identity is very important to members, they want the feeling of belonging to something. Gangs provide that feeling of solidarity for members; even if it is only symbolic.
  • Power within gang subculture is attained by both money and the number of violent acts committed. Violence demonstrates a member’s allegiance to the gang and initiation into gangs often requires an illegal or violent act.
Gangs/groups amplify violence:
  • Belonging to a group makes it easier for people to act in ways that are out of the ordinary.
  • Gang members no longer need to take individual responsibility for their actions.
  • Three intertwined group psychological processes appear to be at work among these loosely-tied and unstable teenage groups/gangs: (1) A crowd-like condition where reason, control and judgement give way to strong, uncontrolled emotion, (2) De-individuation, a process wherein a person is prevented by group factors from becoming aware of himself as a separate individual (the de-individuated individual is guided by the group’s immediate cues and emotions rather than by long-term beliefs and consequences), and (3) Emotional contagion, which can be described as an automatic spread of behaviour from one person to another or to a whole group.
  • Lucy Pierce, a youth worker in Edmonton, says "most of the girls who get involved in fights would never take such action on their own. It’s a group dynamic. It grows until it explodes".
  • Gangs provide a collective process that weakens ties to social institutions and, in turn, increases interactions with and attachments to individuals already involved in crime.
Gang/group membership is selected for violence:
  • It is sometimes the motivation behind joining a gang and it is involved in the initiation into a gang.
  • Being part of a violent group makes “members” feel empowered and provides them with a sense of security; a sense of family.
  • Police say many fringe members sometimes known as “wannabes” or “foot soldiers” eventually will be involved in some of the worst activities – brutal assaults, armed robberies, swarmings – in attempts to earn respect from the gang.

Numerous theories have been developed to account for gang/group membership and violence. Some have been already mentioned: peer pressure, diffusion of responsibility, support and a feeling of solidarity, and a need to take risks. Others, such as social learning, addresses what the youth sees on television, what they see among their peers, and what they see in their own home – they learn from what they see and act it out. Another view is that youths join gangs as a result of being “alienated” from the rest of society and a feeling of lack of opportunity, or as a response to poverty. While a number of police, sociologists and outreach workers may agree that in some cases the street gang phenomenon is the consequence of an “endemic and unrelenting” cycle of poverty, racism, family breakdown and unemployment, this does not account for majority of gang/group violence. "Most of the gang-related activity in cities in southern Ontario involves middle class youth – as victims and perpetrators. The majority of these gang/group members come from intact families, and have access to material comforts, career pathways, part-time jobs, and other supports." (Mathews in Young Offenders and the Law). According to one study, “those children who stayed in a gang for several years were the most behaviourally and socially maladjusted, often exhibiting early signs of violent and externalizing behaviour (eg., aggression, oppositional behaviour, and inattentive and hyperactive behaviours)” (2009). That there is no single risk factor or set of factors that are predictive of gang membership and/or group/gang violence – it is often quite unpredictable – societal, community, family, school, peer, and individual characteristics each play a role.

Gang/Group Violence in Schools

While violence may not be anything new to high schools, safety in and around schools can never be taken for granted; even in elementary and secondary schools, youth gangs can present serious crime problems. Many teachers, parents, and members of the community see their children’s schools as places that have the typical disturbances, but nothing serious; many parents and school staff can also mistake low reporting to mean an absence of problems. This, however, may not be the case. Many youth do not report violence, especially gang/group violence because of fear and intimidation. It is believed that some join gangs/groups in order to escape and avoid persecution by gang members; for these youth, gang membership serves as protection from other students who have threatened them or otherwise victimized them. Clearly, reliance on official disclosure and documented rates of violence cannot accurately capture the climate of unrest and violence in some schools. Despite the significant influence that gangs/groups have upon violence and crime in schools, it would be wrong to portray them as so potent that schools are powerless to respond. Indeed, the perception of gangs as all-powerful frequently leads schools either to react too harshly or to be so intimidated that they do not take any action at all.

Prevention of Gang/Group Violence

Gang/group violence may not be as common as much of the public thinks, yet it is far too common and far too dangerous to be dismissed. It is also essential to not just talk about the problem but to look at ways to deal with it. We must start planning prevention efforts early to counter some of the more serious youth gang problems.

Youth rely heavily on other youth in the community when it comes to social activity and if the community they have been raised in or hang out in has weak social ties and a lack of solidarity, it can lead them to turn to gang/group involvement. A key factor in decreasing the risk of youth joining a gang/group is community education; schools and parents should be educated on gang culture so that they are better able to identify early signs of gang involvement. Appropriate after-school programs and pro-social activities are also good ways to decrease gang involvement. The under-reporting of gang/group violence contributes to our inability to find ways to prevent it; the lack of real statistics and genuine understanding of the depth of the situation is critical and must be changed if we are to do anything about this social issue.

Legal Approaches
  • Law enforcement agencies in the US are now acknowledging that their social control methods (arrest and incarceration) are not working. Get tough approaches on their own will not solve the problem.
  • The primary approach of law enforcement agencies is to use an aggressive gang suppression strategy. Typically, this involves surveillance, stakeouts, targeted patrols and arrest policies, follow-up investigations, and intelligence gathering.
  • The Criminal Code of Canada has made amendments to combat gun and gang-related crime in Canada.

Reducing gang violence and preventing further involvement cannot be achieved by law enforcement alone, a community response is necessary. Everyone needs to be involved: parents, schools and community members.

Deterrent Approaches
  • Targeting gangs engaged in violent crime. Reaching out in an open manner to all members of the targeted gangs.
  • Delivering a direct message that violence will not be tolerated under any circumstance. Reinforcing that message by “pulling every lever” legally available (appropriate policing, sentencing, etc.)
  • The Boston Police Department’s Youth Violence Strike Force uses three techniques. First, probation officers and police officers patrolling the streets in teams identify gang members, enforce conditions of probation, and increase sanctions for probation and parole violations. Second, an explicit communication campaign, often carried out face-to-face with gang members, delivers the message that gang violence has provoked the authorities' suppression approach and only an end to gang violence will stop suppression activities. Third, gang mediation specialists are deployed to gang ‘hot spots’.
Community Approaches
  • Recognizing the seriousness of the problem
  • The need for a joint effort (schools cannot handle the problem on their own nor can police, the government or students)
  • Victims and the non-offending majority need to see that they will be protected and assisted and that offenders will be held accountable
  • Recognize the growing problem of racial tension in gang/group conflicts
  • Better implementation of the “alternative measures” provisions of the Young Offenders Act
  • Discuss and educate all concerning violence in society and on television
  • Education, education, education

What must be recognized is that no single agency, community group, law, piece of legislation, or approach alone is sufficient to successfully address a complex problem such as gang/group violence. Any good strategy will need to be a long-term strategy.

Conclusion

Young people want to spend most their free time with other young people. There will probably always be some gangs/groups within society that are going to commit crimes and even violent crimes. This does not mean that nothing can be done, however, because group/gang violence is becoming far too disturbing to ignore. Perhaps the most unsettling fact is that an overwhelming number of students do not feel safe in school. We, as a society, cannot hide from gang/group violence and must face it openly and directly.

That said:

“We need to be careful not to judge all young people based on the violent and criminal activities of a few. With all the media attention being given to teens involved in gang/group activities, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that most young people are concerned, law-abiding citizens. Unnecessary panic caused by media-created and erroneous impressions of ‘rampant’ youth violence can make adults ‘youthphobic.’ Youthphobia, or fear of youth, either as individuals or in groups, has lead to the murder of innocent or mischievous teenagers, in the United States, when panicking adults misunderstood their actions and reached for their guns before asking questions” (Mathews in Young Offenders and the Law).

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