Report: Police hype gangs to score funding
By CAROLYN SALAZAR and JASON TSAI
Street gang membership is dropping nationwide, but a Washington think tank says law enforcement is exaggerating the problem in order to cash in on government grants.
In a report released Wednesday, the Justice Policy Institute says many of the gang units it studied were established more to obtain funding than to address a growing crime problem. The units are largely ineffectual and strengthen gang activity instead of reducing it, the institute says.
"Gang units were formed in response to political, public and media pressure," the report says. "Almost no one other than the gang unit officers themselves" consider the response effective, it says.
State and local authorities blasted the "Gang Wars" report, noting that the institute didn't study New Jersey specifically.
"Maybe nationally they're not on the rise," said State Police Sgt. Ronnie Hampton. "But, truly, I think I can speak for New Jersey in that we have not reached any type of plateau."
Governor Corzine, U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie and Attorney General Anne Milgram have made combating gangs a priority, warning that the violence associated with them is increasing statewide.
Last month, State Police Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes said 45 percent of New Jersey's nearly 600 police agencies surveyed recently reported gang activity within their jurisdictions. Soon after, federal and state authorities conducted a series of separate raids in North Jersey that netted dozens of reputed gang members.
Sen. Robert Menendez took up the cause in March, introducing federal legislation that would give communities more money to fight gangs.
Confusion over criteria
Teaneck recently approved hiring five more officers to form an anti-gang unit. Police are seeking $500,000 in funding for the initiative, making them one of several departments that are looking to tap state and federal grants.
"We're definitely seeing an increase in gang activity over the years," Teaneck Police Chief Paul Tiernan said Wednesday. "But we realize that we're not going to arrest our way out of the problem. We're also doing a lot of outreach efforts and prevention efforts."
Retired Teaneck Officer Fred Greene said he, for one, isn't convinced.
"They are hyping the gang problem," said Greene, who attended a recent gang presentation in town. "It really has to do with getting more equipment and manpower than having an actual problem."
Some of the differences in opinion may be found in the criteria.
Last year, a 15-year-old was killed in Teaneck by a teenager who was originally identified by police as a suspected gang member. However, Bergen County prosecutors later said they found no evidence that the convicted shooter had been involved in a gang.
Under state guidelines, someone can be categorized as a gang member simply by claiming to be one. There are other criteria, including having gang tattoos, clothing or colors, using hand symbols or other "identifiers," or being seen in the company of four or more identified gang members.
Making it worse
Sgt. George Rosario of the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office said the criteria serve a purpose.
"I see those wannabes as soon-to-bes," said Rosario, who heads the gang suppression unit. "They're practicing something regarding gangs, so they must be looking to get into gangs."
Youth crime in the United States is at its lowest levels in three decades and gangs are responsible for a relatively small share of crime, statistics show. According to a national Justice Department survey of police departments, gang membership declined from 850,000 in 1996 to 760,000 in 2004.
The authors of the report released Wednesday said politicians and law enforcement officials have sought immediate answers to occasional outbursts of violence, rather than seek funding for social programs. While a city like New York has drastically reduced its gang problems through longtime street-level social work and job training, among other measures, a get-tough approach in Los Angeles has made it "the gang capital of the world," one of them said.
'You can't turn a blind eye'
Elmwood Park Police Chief Don Ingrasselino said he's clearly seen a spike in the number of people identified as members of a major gang, such as the Latin Kings and Bloods. In his town, a suspected Latin Kings member shot a friend during an argument two years ago. Months earlier, a fight in Lodi that was clearly gang-related left one person dead and several others injured.
"You can't turn a blind eye and put your head in the sand and say there is no gang presence -- because there is," Ingrasselino said. "We are trying to get the word out so people are aware what to look for so they can stop it. It's like cancer: You don't want to address it when it becomes fatal. You want to attack it early so it won't get worse."
In nearby Paterson, police say a dozen-member gang unit is kept plenty busy.
"We have a gang problem here, most definitely," said Lt. Anthony Traina. "We see it in their presence in many assaults and robberies."
Like several of his counterparts, Traina questioned the claim that funding is the primary objective.
"Whether [gang crime] is increasing or not, police need the resources," he said.
Read the report
Justice Policy Institute
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Where's the problem?
Anti-gang programs in 17 jurisdictions nationwide failed more often than they succeeded, a study by the Justice Policy Institute found. Other findings:
• There are fewer gang members across the country today than a decade ago.
• Gangs account for a small percentage of crime in most areas.
• Gangs don't dominate or drive the drug trade.
• Police gang units are usually created more to obtain funding than to fight gangs.
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Looking for a sign
Someone who claims to be a gang member in New Jersey is automatically categorized as one, under state guidelines. Otherwise, they must meet at least three of the following criteria:
• Identified as a gang member by a parent or guardian.
• Identified by a reliable informant or document.
• Bearing gang tattoos, clothing or colors.
• Using hand symbols or other gang "identifiers."
• Writing in letters or correspondence about being in a gang.
• Being arrested in the company of other identified gang members.
• Being observed in the company of four or more identified gang members.
Source: N.J. State Police
Staff Writer Adrienne Lu contributed to this article. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
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