If you were to go back to all the classes that you’ve ever instructed in your lifetime as a law enforcement officer that had to do with perception, identity, or crimes committed, what would be the common denominator? Would it be style? Would it be a stereotype? Would it have been racially motivated?  In all of the drug and gang classes that I’ve taught to the general public, there is always someone who raises his hand and asks, “What does a drug dealer look like?’ or “What does a gang member look like?” In some instances there have even been law enforcement officers who asked, “How do I know what ‘they’ look like?”

The changing face of criminal street gangs has exploded right in the faces of law enforcement all across the nation.   I’m not explaining “Gangs 101.”  This not a basic identification guide, nor is it a guide to “Is it a gang or not?”  All I want is for you to think a little differently than you did before you read this to understand the evolution of the criminal street gang member.

Starting in the late 80’s, we all learned the following about gangs:

  1. Average age of a gang member – 12-24 years of age
  2. Most likely to be – African American
  3. Male
  4. Uneducated
  5.  From a broken home (or single parent home)
  6. Prior criminal history
  7. Disruptive school history

Based on this criteria, law enforcement could go out and find any number of “gang members”. With the exception of the White Supremacist, Hispanic, and Asian gangs, this was true across the board. The notion of the gang member type gave birth to a number of unfortunate issues including racial profiling, use of force issues, police brutality, etc.  This era gave the nation its first perception of gang members.

With the inception of the Bloods, Crips, Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords, and any number of other gangs in the late 1960’s, it was all about “turf.  Housing complexes were torn apart.  Neighborhoods divided. The gang brought the drug trade to light with an “in your face” attitude that gave a distinct image of what a gang member was; a common thug, nothing more, nothing less.  A gang member was out for themselves and had nothing to do but deal drugs, commit any number of crimes, and disrupt neighborhood residents, causing them to live in fear. Not a lot has changed in that respect, but how do we see the gang member today?  The change is enormous.

As we have progressed in our understanding of gang members, so has our perception of them. No longer are they considered to be uneducated, knuckle-dragging thugs without direction.  Since most, if not all, of our information now comes from enforcement efforts, street operations, and the gang members themselves who will talk to us, let’s look at the more recent information we’ve learned about criminal street gangs.

Law enforcement is now dealing with gang issues starting at the elementary school level, progressing to the middle school, then high school, college, and then finally to the community.  With the emergence of second and third-generation gang members, the age of 12-24 years old is drastically lowered. The grandparents started gangbanging years ago and raised children who became gang members. Now their children are raising gang members of their own, a never-ending cycle.

The list of criminal street gangs has now expanded to all manner of other gangs, including hybrid and neighborhood gangs that have accepted all races.  They include, but are not limited to, Bloods, Crips, Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords, Latin Kings, MS-13, 18th Street, Hells Angels, Pagans, Outlaws, Mongols, Sur-13, Norteno, Skinheads, Volksfront, Hammerskins, Mexican Mafia, Folk Nation, People Nation, Insane Clown Posse, Piru, etc.  You can also include the neighborhood groups such as Cutty Boyz, Cedar Park Crew, Cody Boyz, Eastside Gangster Squad, 360 Murder Squad, 757 Boyz, 434 Crew,  Rder Squad, etc.

We now know that every member of a criminal street gang has a job within the gang. There are those who handle money, those who manage people, those who handle cars, and so on. Most, if not all gangs are being run as businesses.  With the evolution of gang members came that added responsibility of getting an education. High school diplomas as well as college degrees are common among those arrested for gang-related activity.

Females are more prevalent in gangs.   At the inception of the gang era, females were considered nothing more than toys, playthings, and tools to be used by the male. Now the females take leadership roles in the gangs.  In some cases, the gangs are composed entirely of female members.

When law enforcement contact is made with a gang member, it is more common now that he or she may have no criminal history. We all know that situation will not last for long, but it is being seen.  For the most part gang members are now learning how to operate under the radar.

Don’t read this and say “Not my child”!  There is no way my child is involved with a gang! Take a step back and look around.  Gang membership is now taking a toll on all walks of life. It doesn’t matter what your education level is or what your status in life is, law enforcement or general public. We have gangs that were formed out of Sunday school classes. We have gangs in which all the parents of those involved were doctors and lawyers.

We have gang leaders with MBA’s, who are lawyers, physicians, and have other jobs, which represent leadership positions in communities.  We can no longer think of a boxed definition of what a criminal street gang member is. We must think outside of the box.  We must not let our personal perceptions get in the way of our professional responsibility.

Law enforcement and the general public have been so far behind the curve with this issue that we are playing catch up in a game that is successfully staying ahead of us. Each of us must strive to be more observant and not tolerate these gangs in our communities, our jobs, and our families. Too much damage is done when we allow this type of activity to continue.

This issue affects ALL walks of life. The criminal street gang member is ever changing.  Make sure you watch and listen to those changes, and then pass on your knowledge to others. That way, you won’t become stagnant yourself.

Supervisory Special Agent Mark Campbell of the Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigations began his law enforcement career with the Marine Corps.  He has served as a security officer and a correctional officer.  SA Campbell has been with the VSP as a narcotic canine handler, in drug enforcement, in the gang unit, as a supervisory special agent, and now as the Supervisory Special Agent of the RUSH Drug Task Force. 

He is one of the VSP’s lead instructors teaching self-defense and police tactics.  He trains all the trainers who teach department defensive tactics.  SA Campbell teaches firearms and defensive tactics (use of force) for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, Fire Marshall Academy.  He holds a second degree Karate black belt.  SA Campbell is a board member of the Virginia Gang Investigators Association and State President of the Virginia Association of Law Enforcement Defensive Tactics Instructors.