Gangs and Gang Activity in a Non-Metropolitan Community: The Perceptions of Students, Teachers, and Police Officers

Article excerpt

In recent years, both the media and the research literature have noted an increased presence of street gangs in non-metropolitan and rural communities. This study was conducted in a small community in the south which was identified by its police force as having a sizable gang population. Individuals from three groups within the community who have frequent, direct contact with gang members participated in the study. Participants completed questionnaires designed to measure their general perceptions of the gangs, the actors associated with gang development, and the community's response to the gang presence. The participants perceive a number of factors as having influenced the growth of gang activity. The results showed striking perceptual differences between the groups, as well as a number of similarities.

For much of this century, street gangs have garnered the attention of social science researchers. Through the use of varying methodologies and theoretical approaches, these researchers have provided the public with a wealth of relevant information concerning the development, structure, and behavior of street gangs in the United States (Bursik & Grasmick, 1993; Hagedorn, 1990; Klein, 1995). The illegitimate opportunity theory of Cloward and Ohlin (1960), and Yablonsky's (1959) concept of near groups have provided invaluable insights into why gangs form, why young people join such gangs, and what these gangs do when they are together. The insights of these and other researchers remain relevant to current investigations of the urban gang phenomenon (Bursik & Grasmick, 1993; Hagedorn, 1990).

Interest in gang research waned somewhat during the 1960's and 70's (Brantley & DiRosa, 1994), but was rekindled in the 1980's when the United States experienced a nationwide increase in gang activity and violent, gang-related crime (Klein, 1995; McCort, 1996). Klein (1995) found that the number of street gangs in the United States had increased more than 300% since 1961. Whereas there were 54 cities with a gang population in 1960, his survey of law enforcement agencies across the nation indicated that by 1995, street gangs could be found in approximately 800 cities across the nation.

Many contemporary gangs do not reside in urban communities but rather in towns once thought to be immune from gang influence (Brantley & DiRosa, 1994; Klein, 1995; McCormick, 1996; McCort, 1996). In the light of this finding, it is essential that research address two facets of the current street-gang situation in the United States. First, the vast majority of studies have focused on urban gangs, both describing their nature and providing uniquely urban explanations for their development. Such a focus on metropolitan areas has created a dearth of information regarding the emergence of gangs outside of the cities of the USA - especially in its semi-rural and rural towns. Second, few attempts have been made to study the impact of gang development on smaller communities and their citizens. The present research attempts to address the latter issue.

The research literature indicated that one way to effectively gauge how social phenomena affect individuals and groups is to measure their perceptions of those phenomena (Braungart, Braungart, & Hoyer, 1980; van der Wurff, van Staalduinen, & Stringer, 1989). Several studies have used this method to examine the responses of citizens to the gang presence in their communities. A study conducted by Takata and Zevitz (1990) asked adults and students living in Racine, Wisconsin, to share their perceptions of the gangs located in that city. They found that students' perceptions were generally more positive than those of adults, with students being less likely to perceive the existence of a serious gang problem in the community. The students were more likely, however, to believe that the influence of gangs was widespread. A higher percentage of students than adults agreed that there were gangs present both in their neighborhoods and in other neighborhoods throughout the city. …