The American Street Gang: Its Nature, Prevalence, and Control

The American Street Gang: Its Nature, Prevalence, and Control

The American Street Gang: Its Nature, Prevalence, and Control

The American Street Gang: Its Nature, Prevalence, and Control


When the Soviet Union collapsed, the White House announced with great fanfare that 100 FBI counterintelligence agents would be reassigned. Their new target: street gangs. Americans--filled with fear of crack-dealing gangs--cheered the decision, as did many big-city police departments. But this highly publicized move could be an experience in futility, suggests Malcolm Klein: for one thing, most street gangs have little to do with the drug trade. The American Street Gang provides the finest portrait of this subject ever produced--a detailed accounting, through statistics, interviews, and personal experience, of what street gangs are, how they have changed, their involvement in drug sales, and why we have not been able to stop them. Klein has been studying street gangs for more than thirty years, and he brings a sophisticated understanding of the problem to bear in this often surprising book. In contrast to the image of rigid organization and military-style leadership we see in the press, he writes, street gangs are usually loose bodies of associates, with informal and multiple leadership. Street gangs, he makes clear, are quite distinct from drug gangs--though they may share individual members. In a drug-selling operation tight discipline is required--the members are more like employees--whereas street gangs are held together by affiliation and common rivalries, with far less discipline. With statistics and revealing anecdotes, Klein offers a strong critique of the approach of many law enforcement agencies, which have demonized street gangs while ignoring the fact that they are the worst possible bodies for running disciplined criminal operations--let alone colonizing other cities. On the other hand, he shows that street gangs do spur criminal activity, and he demonstrates the shocking rise in gang homicides and the proliferation of gangs across America. Ironically, he writes, the liberal approach to gangs advocated by many (assigning a social worker to a gang, organizing non-violent gang activities) can actually increase group cohesion, which leads to still more criminal activity. And programs to erode that cohesion, Klein tells us from personal experience, can work--but they require intensive, exhausting effort. Street gangs are a real and growing problem in America--but the media and many law enforcement officials continue to dispense misleading ideas about what they are and what they do. In The American Street Gang, Malcolm Klein challenges these assumptions with startling new evidence that must be understood if we are to come to grips with this perceived crisis.


I started doing gang research in the autumn of 1962 and have now been at it, off and on, for some thirty years. Starting in total ignorance, I have accumulated enough exposure, knowledge, frustration, anger, and recovery to attempt to write a book that might help move the field a bit. The journey has been guided at various points by friends and colleagues. All of the former have been sources of knowledge and support; of the latter, some have been supportive, and some have provided the opposition needed to focus and sharpen my views. I need to acknowledge the good guys and the others, explicitly.

LaMar Empey, eminent criminologist, guiltless big game hunter, and occasional role model has probably done more to mold my career than any other professional. I like the mold, and readers of this volume will unknowingly be affected by it.

Cheryl Maxson, my gang research colleague over the past dozen years, has become my methodological superego and conceptual partner. Little that I say in this book is mine alone, but she would find nicer ways to say it. So would Lea Cunningham, our long-suffering and absolutely invaluable field supervisor.

Elaine Corry is one of the most amazing people I've ever known. Friend, colleague, administrator, tolerator of all sorts of human frailty in others, she has been for me and all the others in our research institute our most indispensable resource. She talks now about retirement; if she does it, we may all fall apart like the one-hoss shay.

In the world of gangs and cops, one man has done more, and more willingly, than any other to provide access to the world of the gang cop. Sergeant Wesley McBride of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department (LASD) started his gang intelligence work back in the early 1970s. He's still at it, having become the most reasoned and knowledgeable gang cop I know. My acknowledgment of his help should be taken, as well, as recognition of the nondefensive, administratively open stance taken by the Sheriff's Department toward my many intrusions into their world.

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