Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

When Does the 'Gang' Label Fit Teens? A Murder in Palo Alto, Calif., Sparks Renewed Debate about Whether Suburban Police Departments Are Too Quick to Characterize Immigrant Youths as Gang Members

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

When Does the 'Gang' Label Fit Teens? A Murder in Palo Alto, Calif., Sparks Renewed Debate about Whether Suburban Police Departments Are Too Quick to Characterize Immigrant Youths as Gang Members

Article excerpt

The arrest of six youths for a brutal, random murder here has stirred anew the controversy over what constitutes a gang.

Police in this affluent, placid community describe the suspects as members of a youth gang made up of Pacific Islanders who live in neighboring East Palo Alto. But whether the youths belong to the True Blue Crips or were unsupervised teenagers "just hanging out," as one community leader puts it, remains a matter of wide interpretation.

While some say police in suburban communities are too quick to slap on the gang label, the controversy has refocused attention on the problem of violent youth gangs and their presence in immigrant communities - a problem that has not diminished. A national survey of law-enforcement agencies published in April found that numbers of youth gangs and gang members were higher than previously thought, and that gangs had spread into new localities, especially smaller cities and rural counties. The survey, conducted in 1995 by the government-funded National Youth Gang Center, reported a total of 23,388 youth gangs and 664,906 members. By comparison, a 1991 law-enforcement survey estimated fewer than 5,000 gangs with about 250,000 members. Youth gangs traditionally are organized around ethnicity and race, says John Moore, a senior research associate at the National Youth Gang Center. African-American and Hispanic gangs are the most numerous, but gang activity is also widely reported among recent immigrant groups such as Vietnamese, Laotians, and Chinese. Pacific Islanders, particularly Samoans, have formed gangs in California and Texas. A community in flux East Palo Alto, a small city of blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities set in the affluent sea of Silicon Valley, is home to a growing community of several thousand Pacific Islanders, mainly from Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga. They are a tightly knit group, organized around extended families and small churches, and considered hard-working and law abiding by local law enforcement. East Palo Alto leaders and local law-enforcement officials say they do not believe the murder of Herbert Kay, a NASA scientist, was the work of a gang. The father of twins was beaten to death, a block away from the Palo Alto police station, while out on an evening walk. Gangs were active in East Palo Alto earlier, but "I don't hear of any gangs anymore," says "Mama Dee" Uhila, a Samoan who has been working since the early 1990s with Islander youths. "I think they were just hanging out." "To me, it was a random act, an aberration of what goes on," agrees Ken Hiraki, a gang specialist and a county juvenile probation officer based in East Palo Alto. While graffiti from the True Blue Crips appeared in the past, there is no report of any activity by the group since 1995, he says. The California Youth Authority, the state's youth prison system, also has no record of that gang. The CYA keeps careful records of gang affiliations, their history, tattoos, graffiti, rivals, and other information that can verify the existence of a gang. …

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