Gangs & Community Response

Law enforcement, parents, teachers — and young people — all have a stake in the issue of youth gangs. The information on this page can help you understand the basic facts about gangs: what they are and how the community can best respond to them.

Signs of gang activity include:

  • A rise in truancy
  • An increasing number of social groups with unusual names
  • Young people wearing tattoos, beads, and colors
  • Graffiti especially if crossed out
  • A rising incidence of confrontations, "stare-downs" and racial tensions
  • "Show-by" displays of weapons and "drive-by" shootings

Just what is a gang?

There are many different types of gangs. The kinds of gangs most commonly found in Texas are:

Delinquent Youth Gangs. These are groups of young people (mostly juveniles) who "hang out" together. They have developed some identifying signs such as similar clothing style, colors, and/or hand signs. They have engaged in delinquent or undesirable behavior (truancy, minor vandalism, status offenses) often enough to attract negative attention from law enforcement, neighborhood residents and/or school officials; but they have not yet committed serious crimes.

Traditional Turf-Based Gangs. These are groups of young people (juveniles and/or adults) with a name, a leader or leaders, and identifying signs such as clothing style, colors, or hand signs. The group is associated with a territory, which it defends against rival gangs. Offenses include vandalism (graffiti), assault and sometimes even homicide. Turf and rivalries are key identifying characteristics of these groups.

Gain-Oriented Gangs. These are groups of young people (juveniles and/or adults) with a name and a leader or leaders, who repeatedly engage in criminal activities both as a group and individually, for economic gain. Offenses may include robbery, theft, and distribution and sale of controlled substances.

Violent/Hate Gangs. These are groups of young people (juveniles and/or adults) with a name and a leader or leaders, who collectively engage in acts of violence toward groups or individuals. Geographical turf and material gain appear to be of secondary importance, if present at all. Offenses may include serious assaults and homicide.

Who are the young people in gangs?

Gang members are normally between the ages of 10 and 21. Most have not performed well in school, and many have dropped out. Typically, the most deeply involved gang members have histories of being without adult supervision for extended periods of time, on a daily basis, from an early age. These young people turn to gangs in search of acceptance, companionship, recognition, and a feeling of belonging.

Note! Not every child who experiments with gang styles is a gang member. Don't jump to conclusions. If you suspect gang involvement, talk to the child — and above all, listen.

What can we do about gangs?

Acknowledge the problem. In some communities, residents and officials are afraid to admit that there is a gang problem. They may be concerned about their community's image, or about the negative effects of "labeling" young people as gang members. Some people are even afraid that by giving the problem any attention, they will be encouraging gangs, by giving them the notoriety they seek. All of these concerns should be addressed, and all can be satisfied. Denial is never beneficial. You cannot solve a problem until you admit that it exists.

Assess the problem. Gangs are found in every locality — large, medium, and even small. Before you can begin to find solutions to your own situation, you must understand it. How many gangs and gang members are there? What kinds of gangs are present? Do you have an emerging or a chronic gang problem? What sorts of local conditions are contributing to gang activity? To gather this information, you must establish cooperative relations among schools, police, and community organizations.

Act on the problem. Send a clear message to the gangs in your community that gang activity will not go unanswered. Call neighborhood meetings for citizens concerned about gangs. Involve the media. Clean up graffiti — and keep it cleaned up. Arrange to hear about new graffiti promptly. Always photograph the marks for documentation. Graffiti is the newsletter of the gangs: read it, then paint it over. Involve parents and neighbors. Graffiti removal is a crucial initial step to reclaiming neighborhoods and reducing fear. For ideas on how to initiate a community graffiti clean-up day, visit www.graffitihurts.org and click on "community resources".

What kinds of programs reduce gang activity?

Where gangs are violent or where they are driving up local crimes rates, special police tactics may be needed. But gangs are not primarily a law enforcement problem.

Programs are needed to address some of the causes of gang behavior.

Opportunities. Gang activity often occurs when young people do not have access to socially acceptable alternatives. Children who are poorly prepared for school and receive little support for their positive efforts may turn to gangs for a chance to "be somebody." Schools must recognize the potential and value of each child. Academic support and positive extra-curricular opportunities are essential for at-risk youth.

Alternatives. Gangs are the only form of recreation and companionship available to some young people. To compete successfully with gangs, recreational programs must offer excitement and close, supportive relationships. Mentoring programs may be combined with after-school and summer activities.

Supervision. Too many children are left unsupervised for extended periods of time. "Latchkey" and after-school programs can help by providing safe places for children to learn and play when they would otherwise be left alone. These programs can also help by providing nutritious meals, tutoring, and mentoring.

Social Development Some children need help with interpersonal and decision-making skills. Young people can be taught to visualize the consequences of their actions, and to understand that they can choose what to make of their lives.

Children and parents can benefit from learning new ways of communicating with each other and positive ways of resolving interpersonal conflicts.

Revised: March 28 2011