Identifying and Addressing a Gang Problem

The following information is intended to help parents identify early warning signs of gang involvement, aid them in preventing their children from getting involved with gangs, and provide assistance in helping their children get out of gangs. It is not intended to label or target a particular child who may exhibit some of the listed characteristics. This information is provided by the WSPD for informational and educational purposes only and is not intended as conclusive proof of gang or criminal involvement.

WSPD Gang Unit offers a gang awaressness program for community groups

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What is a Gang

A gang is defined as an ongoing organization, association or group of three or more persons with a common interest, bond, or activity characterized by the commission of, or involvement in, a pattern of criminal or delinquent conduct. In other words, it is a group of people who form an allegiance for a common purpose and engage in criminal activity.

Gangs may be organized on the basis of race, ethnicity or geographical location.

Who Belongs to Gangs?

Gangs can affect anyone, regardless of where they live or what school they attend. Young people from all walks of life join gangs. Some gang members drop out of school, while others may be excellent students. Research shows that the following factors are common indicators that a young person may be involved in gang activity.

  • Youth admits to gang membership.
  • Is under 21 years of age and is identified as a gang member by a parent/guardian.
  • Is identified as a gang member by a reliable source.
  • Resides in or frequents a known gang area, uses a gang's hand signs, colors, or tattoos, and/or associates with known gang members.
  • Has been arrested more than once with or in the company of known gang members for crimes that are consistent with gang activity.
  • Has been stopped by the police more than four times while in the presence of known gang members.

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Why Do Young People Join Gangs?

A gang often meets needs that go unfulfilled in other areas of a young person's life. The gang may provide a sense of security, loyalty, structure and DISCIPLINE that may be missing at home. The following is a list of reasons that may lead a young person to join a gang.

  • Lack of positive influence by/interaction with parents
  • Self-respect/identity
  • Protection/peer intimidation
  • Replacement or substitute family
  • Lack of economic opportunity
  • Desire for excitement/machismo
  • Lack of alternatives in/out of school
  • Prestige/power
  • Friendship/brotherhood
  • Protection/security from gang violence
  • Feeling of belonging/being cared for
  • Media glorification of gang lifestyle

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How To Identify Gang Members

The following are some common indicators to look for if you suspect your child may be involved in gang activity. These indicators are not a guarantee that your child is involved in a gang. The only way to know for sure is by communicating with your child.

  • Poor academic progress/skipping school/lack of interest in school activities.
  • Large amount of unsupervised time.
  • Increased conflict at home.
  • Frequent disciplinary problems at home/school.
  • Frequent contact with police.
  • Drawing graffiti.
  • Drawings/homework with the letters "B" or "C" crossed-out, inverted or used improperly.
  • Using gang hand signs.
  • Not associating with long-time friends/secretive about new friends/activities.
  • Changing hair or dress styles/having a group of friends with the same styles.
  • Changing normal routines/not coming home after school/staying out late at night.
  • Photographs with others displaying gang signs, weapons or gang-type clothing.
  • Physical signs of being involved in fights/secrecy as to how injuries are received.
  • New-found sense of bravery/bragging that they are too tough to be "messed" with.
  • Using a new nickname.
  • Demanding privacy.
  • Refusing to take part in family activities.
  • Drinking alcohol/using drugs.
  • Unusual mood swings or patterns of behavior.
  • Sudden, unexplained increase in material possessions.
  • Obsession with a particular color of clothing or desire for a particular logo.
  • Wearing baggy pants and shirts (commonly known as "sagging").
  • Wearing "Dickey" style clothing.
  • Numbers, symbols and writing on jeans.
  • Wearing pants with pockets that show gang colors when turned inside-out.
  • Using different-colored shoelaces.
  • Wearing clothing with portions of logos colored-over to make them similar to gang logos.
  • Unusual writing, markings, numbers, symbols or street names on shoes or inside hats.
  • Altering logos on hats to match gang logos.
  • Wearing clothing of sports teams that use similar colors or logos of the gang.
  • Wearing colored bandanas on their head or partially exposed in a pocket.
  • Wearing belts with writing/numbers on the portion of the belt that hangs down.
  • Common tattoos: three dots "Mi Vida Loca," tear drops, pachuco cross, words with the #13 or #14 in them, pitch forks, crosses, 5- or 6-point stars, and 5- or 6-point crowns, two masks – one happy/one sad.

If any of these signs are present, you should not automatically conclude that your child is involved in a gang. Instead, you should talk with them to determine whether or not they are involved in a gang and, if so, at what level. We can provide warning signs to look for, but only by communicating with your child will you know for sure.

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Help Your Child Say "No" to Gangs

Your child needs a balance between love and discipline

  • A child often uses a gang to replace a sense of belonging not found in their family.
  • Spend time alone with your child. It doesn't matter what you do, as long as it helps you to get to know each other.
  • Listen to your child and ask for their opinions.
  • Help your child to talk with you without fear of punishment.
  • Do not talk "down" to your child.
  • Talk to your child about ways to deal with pressure from friends.
  • Set firm limits with your child. Let them know clearly what is expected of them and the consequences for acting otherwise.
  • Always know where your child is, who they are with, and enforce their curfew.
  • Support your child's involvement in extracurricular activities at school or other organized events.
  • Explain the dangers of gang affiliation to your child, including intimidation and retaliation against family members.
  • Discourage your child from hanging around with gang members.
  • Meet your child's friends. Find out who they are, what influence they have over your child, and how they spend their free time.
  • Support your child's goals and ideas, even if they differ from your own.
  • Make it clear that you love your child as he or she is.
  • Be a good role model.

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Consequences of Being in a Gang

Joining a gang is never a good idea. It can place both the gang member and his/her family in danger. Although gang membership is sometimes temporary, it can have long term effects on a child's future. Gang members frequently drop out of school and/or end up in jail. As a result, it is more difficult to find a job. Many members suffer from alcohol or drug abuse. Ultimately, some gang members are seriously injured or killed.

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How to Deal with your Child Being in a Gang

  • Try talking to your child calmly. Ask why they are in the gang.
  • Define the rules your child must follow and enforce them.
  • Know your child's friends.
  • Get to know the parents of your child's friends.
  • Tell your child that their friends in the gang are not welcome at your house if they intend to wear gang clothing and carry drugs or weapons.
  • Do not be intimidated.
  • Talk with other parents who may not know of their child's involvement in a gang.
  • Do not allow your child to wear gang-style clothing.
  • Do not allow your child to write/practice graffiti on books, papers, clothing, etc.
  • Do not allow your child to roam the streets or stay out late. Set a curfew.
  • Become an informed parent and learn about gang activity in your community.
  • Learn about community prevention programs that may assist you with getting your child out of a gang.

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Getting Out of a Gang

Most gang members join a gang because it meets certain needs in their life. There are a variety of reasons for joining, but once a person realizes that those needs can be met in other ways, the gang may lose its appeal. The young person may decide they no longer want to be a gang member. Here are a few suggestions to help, after deciding to quit the gang:

  • Find supportive family members or friends.
  • Never tell the gang that the young person wants out or is planning to leave.
  • Encourage the young person to spend time doing other things such as sports, school or family activities.
  • Encourage the young person to stop looking and dressing like a gangster.
  • Encourage the young person to stop hanging out with/talking like gangsters and to find other people to hang out with.
  • The young person may make excuses when gang members try to contact him/her. Have a family member say that he/she is gone or busy. Don't return calls and if asked why, say that the message was never received.
  • Consider transferring to another school if gang members attend the same school.

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