Challenge posed for gang unit

A report says Durham's gang unit needs clear ways to measure its effectiveness

Staff WriterSeptember 20, 2007 

  • Here are some findings from the full gang assessment report:

    * As of August, there were almost 1,000 gang members in 33 gangs, according to GangNet, a statewide gang intelligence database started by the Durham Police Department and Durham County Sheriff's Office.

    * Durham ranks in the middle in its number of gangs when compared with other similar-sized Southeastern cities.

    * Between 2002 and 2006, about half of the homicides in the city and county may have been gang-related.

    * Between 2000 and 2007, about 17 percent of gang members were arrested 10 times or more and 2 percent were arrested 20 times or more.

    * Middle school students are the most vulnerable to joining a gang, although in 2006, the average gang member age was 22. The most common age was 19. About 25 percent of gang members are under 18 while 30 percent are between 19 and 21.

    * Most gangs are small, with only seven having more than 25 members. Two large gangs make up about half of Durham's gang numbers. Females make up 5 percent of gang members.

    * About 82 percent of gang members are black. About 15 percent are Hispanic. Researchers think the Hispanic number is higher, but language and culture are barriers to an accurate count.

    (COMPREHENSIVE GANG ASSESSMENT: A REPORT TO THE DURHAM POLICE DEPARTMENT AND DURHAM COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE)

— For years, police anti-gang units across the country have come under fire for lacking ways to measure their effectiveness, with some critics questioning whether they're needed at all.

A recently released report specifically raises such questions with regard to the Durham Police Department's 30-member gang unit.

The gang assessment report is a semifinal step in the study of Durham's gang problem, led by gang experts Buddy Howell of the National Youth Gang Center and Deborah Lamm Weisel, a crime analysis professor at N.C. State University. They were hired by the city and county and are being paid $65,000 for their work.

An executive summary of the report was presented to city and county officials Friday. The full 200-page report, which included the analysis of Durham's gang unit, was presented to law enforcement.

Durham gang officers mostly spend their time conducting probation, prostitution and drug operations while also serving warrants and attending community meetings. Other Durham officers, including juvenile investigators and school resource officers, are unclear on the gang unit's responsibilities, the report said.

"While it is not unusual for police gang units to lack standardized methods for assessing the effectiveness of their efforts in improving gang problems, the size and prominence of this unit in DPD make it critical to develop meaningful and reliable reports that address these issues and provide a benchmark over time," the report said.

Durham police Capt. Ray Taylor, who oversees the department's special operations units, agreed that a useful evaluation method for the unit and better communication with other police units are needed. Durham started the gang unit, the first in any Triangle police department, in 2000.

Taylor defended the Durham gang unit's policy of conducting undercover drug investigations, saying that drugs and prostitution help finance gang activity.

The report gives police "a tool to use when we're planning what to do with our gang unit in the future," Taylor said. "That's what we wanted to get out of this gang assessment."

The department is likely to undergo some reorganization in the coming months under the new chief, Jose Lopez, but Deputy Chief Ron Hodge declined to speculate this week how the gang report might affect that.

"We will certainly take those suggestions into consideration," Hodge said.

The report briefly mentioned the Durham County Sheriff's Office's gang unit, which consists of two deputies, a sergeant and a lieutenant. They mostly collect intelligence and investigate gang-related crimes, the report said. The Sheriff's Office also has two civilians who manage a gang database the office started with Durham police.

Kevin Pranis, a gang researcher with the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute, said gang units are typically formed in one of three ways: A few officers decide to look into gangs on their own; police departments do so as a means of obtaining more grant money; or -- most often -- a department sets up a unit in response to public pressure.

In some cases, these units don't fit into a department's overall strategy, so they end up creating unclear objectives under little supervision, Pranis said.

"You don't need a gang unit, you need a real good community-policing program," said Pranis, who co-wrote a report called "Gang Wars: The Failure of Enforcement Tactics and the Need for Effective Public Safety Strategies."

Gang officers are effective when they take time to talk with gang members, said John Hagedorn, a criminal justice professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who created the Web site www .gangresearch.net. Evaluating noncrime factors, such as the number of gang members an officer got to join a sports league, would be more effective than examining the volume of drug arrests, he said.

The Rev. Melvin Whitley, an East Durham community activist, suggested that gang-unit officers share more of their knowledge with community leaders.

Gang officers "know the language, they know the hand signs," Whitley said. "They've been very helpful in giving me insight into turf battles and disagreements. They know the difference between a crime of passion and an organized crime. And most organized crime in Durham is initiated by gang members."

stan.chambers@newsobserver.com or (919) 956-2426

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