Gangs: Problem vs Perception

Brent Finnegan -- September 3rd, 2009

If you read local media headlines, it’s apparent that Harrisonburg has a gang problem. CHARGE says we have more than 800 “gang members and associates in the area.” In the wake of a recent drive-by shooting on Kelly Street, commenters on the DNR were quick to blame the violence on gangs (despite the fact that police never said it was gang-related). Commenter AnthonyUSMC chimed, “Drive by shooting not being gang related is like saying the taliban are just misunderstood.”

But a story published yesterday at TIME.com reevaluates what “gang” actually means.

Crime attributed to gang violence has been going up even as the nation’s overall violent crime rate has been decreasing (it was down 2.5% in 2008 from the year before). But rather than look at such incidents as ordered up by gang bosses, some experts are beginning to see them as the product of a street culture of feuds, vendettas, retribution and violent one-upmanship that pervade what are commonly called gangs but which may not be gangs at all.

In July, the DNR reported that the local gang problem has gone from bad to worse since CHARGE has been investigating gangs in the area.

Since the establishment of a gang task force in 2005, gangs in the Harrisonburg area have become more numerous and more dangerous, according to police … A major reason for the increase, police say, is because gangs have become common in “mainstream America,” featured in television shows, movies and other popular media.

Those numbers correlate to the National Gang Threat Assessment report cited in TIME, that there are “about 1 million members. In some communities, the report said, gangs account for as much as 80% of the crime. The report also said that 58% of law-enforcement agencies saw an increase of gang activity in 2008, up from 45% in 2004.”

So the question is not whether there are gangs. Rather, how are those gangs defined, and what do they do? The TIME story concludes:

Simply labeling such crimes as “gang-related” does not explain what is happening on the streets. Criminal-justice experts are beginning to believe that a majority of the violence does not result from directives from any formal gang hierarchy, but rather that it is the result of beefs between smaller neighborhood groups … “People think they are organized and [part of] making money on the streets, but for the most part, all of that is wrong.”

Could there be a parallel here between hate crimes and gang crimes? If you take an illegal, violent act, and slap another label on it, does that make it worse?

16 Responses to “Gangs: Problem vs Perception”

  1. Renee says:

    Thank you for writing about this! I think one reason organizations are so quick to label this kind of violence as gang activity is because of the federal funding available to cities with gang problems.

  2. I’ve often wondered about the funding issue (both locally and the report cited in the TIME story). If your job depends on there being gangs, won’t you make sure there are gangs?

    Also, the obvious question that went unasked in the July DNR story is: If the gang problem is indeed getting worse since the inception of CHARGE, why should we continue putting tax money into the same strategy?

    Typically, if a police unit or precinct wants to make themselves look good, they tout how much they’ve decreased a particular type of crime. I’d imagine that’s a really tough balance to strike. On the one hand, if you’re Chris Rush, you want to make it sound like CHARGE is doing great things. On the other hand, you don’t want to work yourself out of a job.

  3. Renee says:

    True, it must be tricky to balance reducing crime enough to look good, and having enough to sustain funding.

  4. Bill says:

    While the points made are indeed valid, I think that it is important to note that not thinking there’s a gang problem will indeed not make a gang problem disappear. We’ve had at least one gang murder and several drive by incidents in the past year, along with a variety of other gang related activity (drugs, tagging, etc.) and while our local police tout that gang activity is up, most of us still feel comfortable in our neighborhoods. But most of us writing on this post or reading this post do not live in the areas of suspected gang activity. Heck, there are some reading this that have little idea where National Coach is or what Kelly St. is like when the sun goes down. What local authorities have got to do IMO, is a multi-throng approach- continue their “police” efforts until it is no longer necessary, encourage local civic , business, and government leaders to provide quality alternative activities at safe places for our local youth, and finally, create an environment for open communication and dialogue on this issue without all the”fear” tatics that have been used in the past. Maybe it’s time for a summit on gang activity in our community???

  5. Jeremy Aldrich says:

    I put the blame for the fear mostly on the media rather than the police force itself (though occasionally, in efforts to secure more funding, they play into those fears). In their day to day work, though, the police are very pragmatic about the problems.

    “Gang crime” has come to describe almost any crime done in a group and has lost its meaning and its helpfulness as a phrase. Perhaps that’s why so many gang charges end up getting tossed out in court.

  6. MF says:

    I really can’t take much of this gang talk seriously after finding out that one person was labeled a gang by the HPD 4 years ago. They deemed him a gang because he put graffiti on a bunch of buildings with the same tag. They were on the look out for two years for members of this so called gang, until he was caught in the act.

  7. Karl says:

    “I put the blame for the fear mostly on the media rather than the police force itself.” The media isn’t saying crimes are gang related that are not deemed such by authorities, so I don’t really follow this line of thought.

  8. Tell me how, with the amount of increases in both law enforcement and our local Commonwealth Attorneys’ offices how the gang problem appears to be increasing?

    Of course, if they were actually being successful at combating gangs, we would no longer be in need of as many resources at all levels of government being “devoted” to the problem, would we?

  9. Karl: I believe that the line of thought is that without investigative analysis and reporting the media is simply distributing the police press release. Sadly, we don’t have an informed basis for “the gang problem” discussion. Who should we blame?

  10. Barnabas says:

    If there is an actual increase in gang actvity the economy would be one reason that makes sense to me.

    I was a part of a gang growing up. It was me and one other kid. We had a rivalry with these two other kids who lived over in the next hollow down the creek. Buy the time I was 12 years old the gangs had disbanded.

  11. Jeremy Aldrich says:

    Karl, when I said I blame the media I’m thinking of stories like this. No critical questioning plus picking out the most sensational details equals an inaccurate public perception of the problem.

  12. cook says:

    A huge problem in discussing this issue is the failure to distinguish between real, adult, violent members of criminal gang enterprises on the one hand; and misguided, unparented, unproductive teenagers (and younger) imitating what they see on the internet and in their neighborhoods on the other hand. Refusing to accurately make this distinction and address a given situation appropriately leads to a myriad of problems and the societal costs are great.

  13. Karl says:

    so tell me Bubby what you have done to gain an informed basis for “the gang problem” discussion?

  14. I talk to members of the local legal services community – these are the people in the trenches, dealing with what actually gets prosecuted and who ends up convicted.

  15. policestate says:

    i don’t think their is much of a gang problem in harrisonburg if their is its really underground i recall that its a felony to do gang grapheetee seems a bit extreme to me why not give the serious charges to the real crimes i mean fine the criminals but dont waste tax payer money putting people in jail

    *Note to whoever posted this: I went ahead and OK’ed it but we won’t continue to approve comments with invalid email addresses -Renee*

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