Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here sang Carmen Miranda in the classic 1943 movie. Unfortunately, today, the gangs are indeed all here, and they are a far cry from the friendly fellows referred to by Miranda. According to recent reports by the U.S. Department of Justice, gangs are active in every state. There are some 31,000 known gangs with an estimated 846,000 members.
But that's probably a low-end estimate, according to Dr. George Knox, director of the National Gang Crime Research Center (NGCRC). Knox notes that the government numbers do not account for gang denial, and they generally use a definition of gang member that is limited by inclusion of terms like "juvenile" or "youth." If racist extremists and groups like outlaw motorcycle gangs were factored in, says Knox, the gang member population in America would be closer to 1.5 million. This growing gang population represents a serious threat for schools, public facilities, businesses, and the security professionals charged with assessing and countering threats against these sites.
THE RISK. According to the FBI, 12 percent of all "Index Crimes" (defined as violent crimes like murder and rape and serious felonies involving property, such as robbery) are committed by gang members, and 75 percent of gang members have police records. The rate of violent offenses for gang members is three times as high as those for nongang members.
That may not be surprising, considering the nature of gangs. What may be a surprise to businesses, however, is that adults are involved in 46 percent of gang incidents. And while some gang members undoubtedly "age out" of gang activity, others enter the work-place with no intention of leaving behind the gang life and the related violence and criminal activity.
Businesses can be--and have been--the victim of internal theft, fraud, computer crime, and large-scale drug dealing spearheaded by employees who are gang members. Having gang members in the work force also increases the potential for violence on the job, as research has shown gang members have greater access to weapons and are more likely to use them in the commission of a crime. They are more likely to have access to explosives and to use those as well. Gang members are also far more likely to sell drugs while in a legitimate job. (The NGCRC has conducted survey research with incarcerated gang members and found evidence of these types of activities.)
Gang members can also cause problems for businesses simply by targeting them as a place to hang out, thereby attracting to the site potential violence from their rivals. Premises liability law allows those injured by gangs on a company's property to sue for damages in civil court.
Serving as a litigation expert, I have encountered numerous cases of gang loitering and subsequent violence at venues such as taverns, bowling alleys, schools, dance clubs, concerts, housing complexes, entertainment centers, and fast-food restaurants. And juries are increasingly finding that businesses have an affirmative duty to protect employees and patrons from foreseeable gang-related violence. In one courtroom verdict, for example, a major fast-food chain was held liable for more than $7 million because of gang activity at a suburban Illinois restaurant that resulted in the shooting of a young man and his subsequent life confinement to a wheelchair.
Gang structure. There are several so-called "super-gangs" that have been the topic of movies and music in recent years. These gangs are the well-known Crips and Bloods and the two major gang alliances: People and Folk. Crips and Bloods are best known as West Coast gangs, but they have now migrated throughout America.
The People and Folk represent respective gang "nations" or alliances that were formed in the prison system and comprise several groups. For example, the Gangster Disciples are the largest gang in the Folk nation and comprise some 30,000 members primarily in the Chicago area and the Midwest. The Chicago press had proclaimed the now incarcerated leader of the Gangster Disciples, Larry "King" Hoover, to be comparable to famous gangsters Al Capone and John Gotti. Hoover's nationwide drug ring was estimated to be worth over $100 million annually. Another group, the Latin Kings, an extremely violent gang, is affiliated with the People Nation (also called the Almighty Brothers).
It is critical not to underestimate the many gangs that lack the major reputation of those in the "super" category. According to the FBI, gangs exist in more than 700 American cities and, as already noted, number in the tens of thousands of groups. In addition, there are a growing number of international criminal organizations, such as the Colombian drug cartels, Russian Mafiya, Chinese Triads, Japanese Yakuza, Hells Angels, and the emerging Jamaican Yardies.
Over the last several decades millions of tax dollars and private grants have been awarded to street gangs and their leaders in attempts to reform the gangs into positive social groups in their communities. Unfortunately, many gang experts find that there is little to show for this expenditure. According to Richard Marianos, an agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Colorado Springs office, "the Gangster Disciples have tried to masquerade as do-gooders hiding behind a name change to 'Growth and Development' but they are simply using political activities to mask criminal intent."
Some gangs have religious trappings. For instance, the El Rukns of Chicago (formerly the Blackstone Rangers and later Black P Stones) use many symbols of the Muslim religion and refer to their facilities as temples or mosques.
It is no longer as easy to spot gang members by colors, however. Gang colors have become less important today than they were just five years ago, because gangs now seek to blend in with their surroundings and draw less law enforcement attention.
Gang activities. Gang members are known for engaging in senseless violent acts, such as drive-by shootings, that capture the headlines, but many gang crimes are driven by economics and cross into the business arena. For example, in one case, gang members penetrated the phone company to "provide information to the gang leader's drug house enabling him to change his drug spots, and they even changed his phone numbers to keep them from being traced," says Marianos.
According to Marianos, that's just one example of how "gangs are reaching out to prestigious corporations and using these companies as tools for furthering criminal enterprises." In another investigation, Marianos says that the agency found "the gang was paying United Parcel Service employees up to $100 per package to steal boxes with labels being shipped from various gun dealers and manufacturers."
Some gang initiations require recruits to commit robberies to raise cash for the gang's coffers. In one highly publicized case a few years ago, young gang members in Memphis, Tennessee, were forced to shoplift thousands of dollars worth of clothing from a local mall for their leader. The gang members, fleeing in a stolen rental car, struck and killed a Memphis police officer, which led to the discovery of the crime and media coverage of the activity.
Some large gangs have become adept at the art of document fraud. The Chicago Tribune reported that members of the Latin Kings were heavily involved in the selling of high-quality birth certificates, Social Security cards, driver's licenses, and green cards to illegal aliens.
Gangs also "communicate through legitimate recording labels to spread the gang message, such as the Ghetto Boys rap CD entitled Resurrection, which contains telephone recordings with inmate Gangster Disciple leader Larry Hoover," Marianos says.
International criminal organizations, which essentially function as adult gangs, have successfully used intimidation and extortion against businesses run by specific ethnic groups in the United States. The Russian Mafiya, for example, has recently received international attention for the extortion of money from National Hockey League players who were from the former Soviet republics.
The military and police departments have also been infiltrated by gangs seeking access to weapons or sensitive information regarding investigations. For example, when "Operation Headache" was launched by law enforcement against the Gangster Disciples leadership in 1997, it became apparent that some gang members had infiltrated the police. One now-convicted female police officer dated a Gangster Disciple leader and owned a seafood restaurant, purchased with illegal drug proceeds, where drug deals were made and "street taxes" were collected from drug sellers, according to reporting by the Chicago Sun Times.
Lt. Thomas McMahon, a 30-year policing veteran and gang expert in Chicago, says that the department has made efforts to prevent such problems in the future. "Rigid screening requirements are now helping to prevent gang infiltration," he notes. He advises that similar screening should be employed for security guards, given that they can "upon entry to a business open the door to fellow gang members."
There have been dozens of examples of infiltration of all branches of the American armed services by gangs during the last 20 years. As a result, some military installations now brief new arrivals and their family members on the dangers of gangs and even conduct tattoo inspections or publish local addresses near military installations of known gang hangouts that are considered off-limits to military personnel. A recommended source of information on this topic is the A & E videotape: Investigative Reports: The New Face of Crime, which highlights how a gang member infiltrated the U.S. Army to purchase weapons for the Gangster Disciples and how an Asian gang targeted California-based Sun Microsystems for large-scale theft and hijackings.
Terrorism. Gangs have also been known to form alliances with terrorists where they perceived common cause or mutual benefits. Such connections existed well before 9-11. For example, in 1986, the El Rukns' leaders were convicted of conspiring with Libyan terrorists to conduct terrorist acts in the United States for the sum of $2.5 million.
The accused "dirty bomb" suspect, Jose Padilla, is a post-9-11 example of the dangerous nexus between gang members and terrorism. Padilla was a former member of a Chicago street gang called the Latin Disciples, and he attended a terrorist training camp sponsored by Osama bin Laden.
Another factor is that a number of radical Islamic gangs operate in prisons, where they have the opportunity to recruit gang members who have adopted Muslim beliefs. The NGCRC's Knox notes that because the ideology of these radical groups is a hatred of the American power structure, "they provide a fertile source of recruitment of domestic terrorists."
Countermeasures. Despite these gang inroads into business and the added risk of a potential terrorist connection, gang infiltration and misuse of the workplace is often not on a company's radar screen. Security managers can help to ensure that it is given the attention it deserves.
For example, gang connections should be among the red flags that a company's HR or security personnel seek to discover about job candidates during the selection process. And the need to keep gang members out of the workplace should be emphasized when security makes the case for comprehensive background checking of job applicants, even for positions that were once considered menial.
A company must also take care to verify a potential employee's job-related documentation to ensure that records have not been forged or counterfeited. In addition, personal information should be verified. For example, gang members have been known to use a fellow gang member's address if they are new in town, giving the impression that they have been living in the local community for years. In fact, these gang members will have come from other cities, where they likely have criminal records. But if security is unaware of the out-of-town connection, the background check may fail to uncover the criminal record.
Another important caution involves not overlooking female gang members. Many of them are working in skilled occupations that involve computer access or cash handling. My experience shows me that female gang members are increasingly likely to engage in violence. For example, in one case I worked on, a female gang affiliate in a supervisory position allowed gang members to eat and drink for free at a popular fast-food restaurant and refused to call police when a teen customer was confronted by her "homies," who subsequently stabbed the young man. Another female gang member initiated a fight between two rival gangs in a similar setting, resulting in a tragic shooting in the restaurant after normal business hours.
In still another case, two female gang members followed a woman to her car in the parking lot of a Chicago McDonald's restaurant and then knifed her to death in front of her horrified family just a few days before Christmas. These same girls had caused trouble in the restaurant earlier that day and had been banned from the premises. Unfortunately, nobody told the afternoon shift employees.
Females are no longer just adjuncts to their male gang counterparts. According to Marianos, "In Colorado Springs, females associated with the Los Angeles based Mafia Crips illegally purchased dozens of firearms for convicted felons who were identified gang members." Security professionals desiring more information on the topic of female gang members are strongly encouraged to read the book Eight Ball Chicks by Gini Sykes.
As this overview shows, many gang members now work in legitimate jobs with access to precious assets and sensitive information. Some dress in three-piece suits or even army fatigues and police uniforms. The result is that innocent customers, employees, or public servants may be caught in gang crossfire. And corporate assets may become gang assets.
Security professionals should spearhead corporate efforts to counter the threat. By developing good preemployment screening practices and a comprehensive awareness program, they can ensure that the gangs aren't there.
RELATED ARTICLE: What Can Security Managers Do?
1. Encourage gang awareness among employees in your organization.
2. Train workers who deal with the public to recognize signs of gang activity.
3. Ask for help from the local police department; most departments maintain information on gang activity, and larger departments have full-scale units dedicated to gang investigation and prosecution.
4. Seek assistance from federal agencies like the FBI or Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
5. Institute thorough background checks of all job applicants that includes verifying documents and data and researching any suspicious items, such as gaps in employment history.
6. Revisit your procedures and practices regarding hiring of temporary workers supplied by agencies and insist on rigorous screening by all suppliers.
7. Assess and address any weaknesses in basic access control to your facility and ensure good physical security for, and surveillance of, high-value assets.
8. Ensure that the organization has no-loitering policies to keep gangs from growing roots on your turf.
9. Implement a zero-tolerance policy for gang activity, including tattoos, graffiti, threats, and "representing" (the use of gang signs and modes of dress that indicate gang affiliation).
10. Treat any graffiti violations as destruction-of-property offenses with prompt discipline for offenders.
11. Cover or remove graffiti immediately to deny the "artist" an audience.
Michael J. Witkowski, CPP, Ed.D., is associate professor of criminal justice and director of the graduate program in security administration at the University of Detroit Mercy. He is a certified gang specialist and trainer and recipient of the Frederic Milton Thrasher Award in 2001 for gang-related research.
By Michael J. Witkowski, CCP…