Racial and ethnic specific strategies of the US law enforcement agencies in fighting and controlling youth gangs

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The terms youth gang and street gang are often used interchangeably, but use of the latter label can result in the confusion of youth gangs with adult criminal organizations. A youth gang is commonly thought of as a self-formed association of peers having the following characteristics: three or more members, generally ages 12 to 24; a name and some sense of identity, generally indicated by such symbols as style of clothing, graffiti, and hand signs; some degree of permanence and organization; and an elevated level of involvement in delinquent or criminal activity (Howell & Egley 2005). The number of cities and counties experiencing youth gang problems increased substantially between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. Based on the 2002 National Youth Gang Survey (NYGS) results, it is estimated that youth gangs were active in more than 2,300 cities with a population of 2,500 or more and in more than 550 jurisdictions served by county law enforcement agencies (qtd. from Howell & Egley 2005).

Even with the advances in crime prevention techniques, however, there are instances in which distrust and tensions between the police and the community are high, and these tensions affect all aspects of the criminal justice system. One of the major causes of this mistrust is the use by some law enforcers of racially discriminating strategies in combating youth gangs such as racial profiling (Ramirez et al…2000). Racial profiling is defined as any police-initiated action that relies on the race, ethnicity, or national origin rather than the behavior of an individual or information that leads the police to a particular individual who has been identified as being, or having been, engaged in criminal activity (Ramirez et al…2000).

Almost everyone would agree that it is not right to stop or search someone on the basis of his color or race. However, the extent and pervasiveness of this practice is sharply disputed. While there has been a movement against race-centered crime-fighting strategies, many law enforcement officials and courts continue to assert that race is a legitimate factor in policing decisions, even where there is no specific racial description of a suspect (Rudovsky 2005). These observations reflect widely held views–within and without law enforcement circles–that African- Americans and other minorities commit a disproportionate number of crimes and, therefore, they are justifiably targeted not only where race is part of a reported criminal incident, but also in situations where police have a wide range of possible targets or where their suspicion of criminal activity would not otherwise justify a stop or search (qtd. from Rudovsky 2005).

The racially disparate impact of police practices are defended on a number of grounds: (1) that minorities commit more crime than whites, which explains and justifies, at least in part, the racial disparities that appear in data concerning stops, searches, and arrests; (2) that enforcement of criminal laws that are violated by whites and minorities in roughly proportionate numbers is disproportionate as to minorities because the location and social impact of the same types of crimes justifies a more aggressive response in minority communities; and (3) that current practices work: aggressive policing and targeting of minority communities, with increased numbers of pedestrian and car stops and searches, has led to a significant number of seizures of contraband, weapons, and fugitives, and a reduction of crime (qtd. from Rudovsky 2005).

The general public opinion that some law enforcers are engaging in racial discrimination has created resentment and distrust of them, particularly in colored or ethnic communities. These communities applaud the benefits of community policing in reducing crime, but they also believe that truly effective policing will only be achieved when police both protect their neighborhoods from crime and respect the civil liberties of all residents. When law enforcement practices are perceived to be biased, unfair, or disrespectful, communities of color are less willing to trust and confide in police officers, report crimes, participate in problem-solving activities, be witnesses at trials, or serve on juries (Ramirez et al…2000). This causes a dilemma on law enforcers as they will be more conscious of what the community’s opinion is during any operation, rather than doing what they should in response to a situation.

 As long as our leaders and human rights groups continue to monitor and check our law enforcers’ activities with regards to racial discrimination, such practice will not be institutionalized although it may still continue in some isolated cases. The guarantee to all persons of equal protection under the law is one of the most fundamental principles of our democratic society. Law enforcement officers should not endorse or act upon stereotypes, attitudes, or beliefs that a person’s race, ethnicity, or national origin increases that person’s general propensity to act unlawfully. There is no tradeoff between effective law enforcement and protection of the civil rights of all Americans; we can and must have both (Ramirez et al…2000). As once President Clinton said about racial profiling; “a morally indefensible, deeply corrosive practice” and further stated that “racial profiling is in fact the opposite of good police work, where actions are based on hard facts, not stereotypes. It is wrong, it is destructive, and it must stop “(Ramirez et al…2000).

No scientific study could support the notion that colored people are more likely to commit crimes than white people. A person doesn’t commit a crime because of his race or color, but something is not right with the society that he has been part of. Such explanation is held by functionalist theory of why crime is committed. However, crime is still a decision to be made by the individual unless it is caused by mental alienation.  But how each individual reacts differently to the same situation is greatly influenced by his past experiences including his youth.  There are four community conditions which could contribute to a youth’s probability of committing a crime; first, conventional socializing agents, such as families and schools, are largely ineffective and alienating. Under these conditions, conventional adult supervision is largely absent; second, the adolescents must have a great deal of free time that is not consumed by other pro social roles; third, for the gang to become established—if not fully institutionalized across generations—members must have limited access to appealing conventional career lines, that is, good adult jobs; finally, the young people must have a place to congregate—usually a well-defined neighborhood (Howell & Egley 2005).

The great challenge therefore for our law enforcement agencies is how to fight and control the formation of youth gangs while developing trust and confidence among ethnic communities. Law enforcement agencies should avoid racial specific strategies in all aspects of their duties as long as such precautions will not limit their ability in enforcing the law effectively. The law enforcers should continue to address the allegations of racial discrimination.

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  1. Howell, James & Egley, Arlen. (2005). Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Gangs. Retrieved October 13, 2005, from Institute for Intergovernmental Research. Web site:http://iir.com/Nygc/faq.htm.
  2. Ramirez, Deborah, McDevitt, & Farrell, Amy. (2000). A Resource Guide on Racial Profiling Data Collection Systems: Promising Practices and Lessons Learned. Northeastern University.
  3. Rudovsky, David. (2005). Racial Profiling: The Law Enforcement Justification. Retrieved Oct. 13, 2005, from Upenn.edu. Web site:http://www.law.upenn.edu/conlaw/issues/vol3/num1/rudovsky/node3_mn.html.
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