|When Good Men Do Nothing: The Price of Denial|
|By Andrew Eways, Aurora, Colorado Police Department|
In virtually every police department, correctional facility or prison in the United States there exists the small group of officers – sometimes only one officer – who believe they see the early warning signs of gang activity in their jurisdiction. Often these observations are made immediately after the officers have attended their first useful gang training program, after which the graffiti, clothing and activities they have seen in their patrol area take on new meaning. Despite their best efforts, however, the warnings are all but ignored and the enthusiastic officers are often strongly discouraged from addressing the issues by commanders, chiefs and public officials. On some occasions, these concerned officers are even threatened with disciplinary action if they do not cease their “interest” in gangs.
For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is public perception, many community leaders are reluctant to acknowledge the presence of gangs in the hopes that the problem will simply go away. The usual results of their inaction were best described by Edmund Burke, who once wrote “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Burke – 1770) Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t go away and, if the gangs are not dealt with they will become more active, more sophisticated and more violent.
In a rural county of northern Maryland, law enforcement and community leaders had long ignored the early warning signs of increasing gang crime. After a homicide occurring in a largely Latino community, however, police officers began to see just how entrenched the gangs had become. One gang member who had been arrested in connection with the murder explained to a State Police Gang Investigator how members and associates of Mexican drug cartels sold large quantities of cocaine and other drugs in the community and protected their business interests through violence and intimidation, as evident by the homicide for which he had been arrested. In the following months, a few police officers began documenting the tattoos, clothing and criminal activities of gang members in this community. They identified members of the Crips, Bloods, Surenos, neighborhood-based gangs and even Mexican drug cartel associates. This information was brought to the attention of police officials as well as state, county and municipality government officials in the hopes of getting resources and support to combat the growing gang problem. Their efforts, however, were met with resistance on many levels, not the least of which were the urgings of law enforcement and government officials to refrain from using the term “gang” too often so as not to reflect poorly on the community.
Today, communities in this area of Maryland are divided into distinct territories controlled by the dominant gangs. The rate of violent crimes associated with these gangs has increased dramatically in recent years and spilled over to new areas of the county. The citizens of many neighborhoods have no confidence that the police will take any action to keep them safe from the gang members who prey on them. This lack of trust and communication further complicates the problem, as many times law enforcement statistics do not bear out the true nature or extent of gang activity. If these communities are afraid to report gang related crimes to police, no resources will be devoted to the problem.
The categorical denial of gang influence or fear of gang influence; however, is not a handicap limited to only suburban and rural areas of the United States. Even the Island of Catalina, which sits approximately 22 miles off the southwest portion of Los Angeles County and is generally described as a tourist destination and island paradise, has seen the effects of gangs and damage caused by public denial. By July of 2008 the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department had identified a fledgling gang in the city of Avalon on Catalina Island whose members identified themselves as Brown Pride Locos. With as many as fifty members at the time, the Brown Pride Locos were linked to several quality of life crimes on the island ranging from graffiti and vandalism to drug distribution. In one instance, deputies found even found several gang members in an isolated area practicing knife techniques with each other.
Despite the documentation of gang members and gang crimes, and the tireless efforts of a small group of Los Angeles County Sheriff Deputies, including veterans of the LASD Gang Enforcement Team, the problem was largely ignored by public officials. According to an associated press news story, while observant Los Angeles County Sheriff Deputies took note of the gang and attempted to take steps to curb its growth and negative effect on the community, the mayor of Avalon – also a local scuba shop owner who personally relies on the steady flow of tourists to the island – told the media that “some teens on the island heckle tourists, smoke marijuana and do some tagging.”, and added that “overzealous policing – and the gang label – could empty the daily ferries that bring as many as 15,000 visitors to the island on summer weekends.” (Associated Press - 2008)
By the summer of 2009, deputies were regularly encountering gang members during their shifts. Incidents of theft, property destruction, drug distribution and assaults on some of the visitors to whom the mayor had referred were becoming all the more frequent. In a scenario that has become all too common across the United States, the lack of support afforded to the men and women of the LASD helped to create an environment where gangs were relatively free to recruit and establish themselves through their criminal activities.
In April of 2010, deputies on Catalina Island arrested three Mexican citizens after finding them and a small, flat-bottom boat on a remote beach. Along with the men, deputies found over four thousand pounds of baled marijuana hidden in the rocks nearby. The subjects were charged with transporting narcotics and booked into a federal facility (The Log – 2010). This incident and others like it have led some in law enforcement to speculate that Catalina Island, like other such locations, has become a station along the path for drugs and human trafficking bound for the mainland. One might wonder if the mayor and others realize that this, too, will empty the daily ferries that bring visitors to Catalina Island.
In contrast to the inaction of the Mayor of Catalina, the Mayor and Chief of Police in Salinas, California made no attempts to downplay the gang problem in their community and chose instead to take immediate action when gang related homicides rose significantly in 2009. In a new and innovative approach, the City of Salinas even sought assistance from United States Military consultants with expertise in counterinsurgency operations.
With a combination of sophisticated crime mapping, sustained community outreach efforts and proactive, redirected and sustained law enforcement efforts, the City of Salinas sought to begin earning the trust and assistance of citizens who believe their neighborhoods to be disenfranchised by the police and controlled by an occupational force of violent gangs. One military consultant who is assisting in the Salinas effort, Major James Few, drew strong parallels between the grievances of the poor Latino neighborhoods of Salinas with the air of disenfranchisement felt by the Sunni people of Iraq he had come in contact with during his three tours of duty in that country. Instead of denying the problems associated with gangs in their community, the City of Salinas has chosen to take immediate and innovative action in the best interest of its citizens. They sought to earn back the hearts and minds of Salinas’ residents just as the United States government officials hoped to in far-away lands. And while some were concerned about the involvement of military personnel, even though they are unarmed consultants and analysts, their expertise and experience with similar dynamics in Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas of the world show great promise in improving the quality of life in Salinas. When commenting on the applicability of the anti-insurgency efforts to a community plagued by gang violence, Major Few simply stated “The frightening realization is that I’ve walked this dog before.” (Washington Post)
As another example of a timely, proactive and innovative response to gang violence, in 2004 a small group of El Paso, Texas police officers who were assigned to a gang intelligence role identified the gang activity that posed the greatest threat to the citizens of El Paso – drive-by shootings. After documenting a significant number of drive-by shootings between rival gangs, the officers focused their attention on the successes and failures of past investigations into these crimes. They realized that the initial response to these crimes scenes by officers familiar with the community and the gangs who existed in the area played a vital role in identifying and arresting the suspects.
After much convincing by EPD’s gang intelligence officers and supportive commanders, the El Paso Police Department formed the first ever Drive-By Shooting Response Team. The officers assigned to this team responded to the scene of drive-by shootings and developed valuable information about the victims, suspects and existing gang rivalries that contributed to these incidents. They worked alongside case detectives and together they assembled strong criminal cases against those gang members who committed drive-by shootings. As a direct result of the work of the Drive By Shooting Response Team, made possible only by the support of commanders who chose not to minimize their problems, the number of cases in which suspects were identified and arrested increased from less than 20 percent to almost 80 percent in a period of approximately two years. In a ripple effect, approximately three years after the team was formed the number of drive-by shootings in the city decreased by more than half. One could argue that the likelihood of being arrested discouraged many gang members from committing this crime and lowered the danger to the public in general. The preventative efforts of these officers, along with the support of commanders who were willing to acknowledge a problem and take action to address it, is a shining example of how things should be done. Unfortunately, it is an example that is rarely followed and police work remains largely reactive than proactive.
While gangs continue to grow and spread their influence throughout the United States, the reaction of police departments and government officials needs to grow and adapt as well. The majority of law enforcement should follow the positive example of the present minority who chose to be proactive and innovative in addressing the gang issue. The success of their efforts may differ, but any true effort is better than none at all. Many of the finest examples of anti-gang initiatives can be found in southern California (outside of Catalina Island) where officers who patrol South Central or East L. A. have been dealing with the problem for decades, if not nearly a century. And since gangs are not going away, all of law enforcement and the communities they serve must first begin by acknowledging the problem and quickly determine an appropriate course of action to address it. In addition to enforcement and investigative initiatives, steps must be taken to regain the trust of the citizens who have long since decided the police do not care about their neighborhoods and find positive activities for children at risk of becoming involved in gangs. After all, the cost of taking immediate action is much lower than the price of denial.
Edmund Burke, 1729 – 1797 Letters and Writings of Edmund Burke, Irish Political Philosopher
Cops fear California Isle is turning into Gangsters Paradise; July 11, 2008 Gillian Flaccus - Associated Press
Grounded boat at Catalina results in $3,000,000 drug bust; April 20, 2010 The Log Newspaper
Iraq’s Lessons on the Home Front; November 15, 2009 Karl Vick – Washington Post
Corrections.com author, Sergeant Andrew Eways of the Maryland State Police, has been a sworn law enforcement officer since 1994. He has worked as a patrol officer, criminal investigator and a supervisor of both investigative and patrol personnel.
He has worked in various specialized investigative fields including Criminal Intelligence, Homeland Security and Organized Crime. He has also served as a field and investigative supervisor of his department’s Gang Enforcement Unit.
He has been recognized by the courts as an expert witness in the field of criminal gangs and provides instruction to law enforcement and correctional personnel in gang history, recognition and investigative techniques. He is a member of several professional associations including the International Gang Investigators Association, of which he is the current executive secretary. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at (410) 977-9589.
Other articles by Eways:
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