Common Characteristics of Gangs

Below are some of the most Common Characteristics of Gangs:

  • Activities include intimidation and extortion, vandalism, theft, assault, swarming, drug trafficking, stabbings, shootings and sometimes murder.

  • Members may wear certain kinds of colors of clothing in very specific ways and/or use special hand signals, nicknames or symbols.

  • Graffiti is not just art. Gang graffiti on buildings, telephone booths and other public places is often used by gangs to mark their territory and bring intimidation to rival gangs and the community. Usually a cryptic combination of letters or symbols, gang graffiti also is responsible for millions of dollars of damage to public and private buildings in most North American cities.

  • Gangs act wherever young people congregate: on public transit or at transit stops, in malls, parks, schools, and on the streets of our community.

Here are some of the current trends police and other authorities are noting.

  • Gang activity today is more violent than anything seen even 10 years ago. Lethal weapons like sophisticated knives and guns are increasingly common.

  • A "tribal youth subculture" is emerging among youth in which kids gain status by devaluing others, gang attire is routine, and violence is glorified. This subculture is portrayed in youth music and videos, on television and in movies and is desensitizing kids to violence.

  • Record numbers of females are attracted to gangs and they are often extremely violent.

  • The ages of children involved in gangs keep dropping. Police are discovering kids as young as 9 and 10 in gangs.

  • Gang activity is affecting large numbers of young people who have no gang affiliation. Often, innocent victims are being intimidated, robbed, assaulted, or even killed.

  • Reducing gangs and gang violence cannot be achieved by law enforcement alone. A community response is necessary. All partners need to be involved: parents, transit authorities, mall management, community members, and schools.

Although the prevalence of youth gangs is decreasing nationwide, it is increasing in rural communities.

In 1998, nearly half (4,463) of the U.S. cities and counties responding to the National Youth Gang Survey reported experiencing youth gang activity. Such activity included an estimated 28,700 gangs and 780,200 active youth gang members in the United States, a modest decrease of about 3 percent from 1997 and a decrease of 5 percent from 1996, when 53 percent of all responding jurisdictions reported active youth gangs.

Most of the nationwide decrease occurred in large suburban counties (i.e., those with populations of 250,000 or more). Counter to the nationwide trend, however, between 1996 and 1998, the number of gang members in rural counties increased 43 percent and the number of gang members in small cities increased 3 percent.

Even with a national decrease in youth gang activity, many communities face major challenges as they address their gang problem.

In 1998, more than two-thirds of jurisdictions reported that their gang problem was either "staying about the same" or "getting worse," compared with previous years. In addition, only 16 percent of jurisdictions reported that gang members in their communities did not use firearms in conjunction with assaults.

More than half indicated that gang members used weapons "often" or "sometimes." Moreover, one-third of all youth gangs today are drug gangs (i.e., gangs organized specifically for the purpose of trafficking in drugs). These drug gangs appear most prevalent in rural counties (38 percent). Jurisdictions report most of their gang members are involved in one or more of the following serious and/or violent crimes: larceny/theft (17 percent), burglary/breaking and entering (13 percent), aggravated assault (12 percent), motor vehicle theft (11 percent), and robbery (3 percent).

Youth gangs are prevalent in schools, where drug and gang activities appear linked.

The most recent data available indicate that more than one-third (37 percent) of students report a gang presence at school (Howell and Lynch, 2000). A high correlation exists between student victimization of all types and school gang presence. In addition, most gangs that students see at school are actively involved in criminal activity.

Students reported, for example, that about two-thirds of school gangs were involved in violence, drug activity, or gun carrying. Students also reported that gangs were most prevalent in schools where drugs were easy to obtain.

Sources:  The Toronto Police Department and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Research Report May 2001