What is a gang?

The first reports from police across the state last year showed a frightening look at gangs in North Carolina. Police were reporting that up to 1,446 gangs with 14,500 members had sprung up across the state. But a harder look at the numbers showed problems. Some gangs were counted twice. And when a precise definition of gangs, rather than just a label, was applied to initial reports, the size of the gang problem had shrunk to 594 gangs with about 5,800 members.

How can the state stop gangs, a report by the Governor's Crime Commission asked, if we don't have a uniform definition of what a gang is?

So what is a gang? A new state law, the Street Gang Prevention Act overwhelmingly passed by the legislature this summer, defines it.

A criminal street gang or youth gang, according to the new law, is an ongoing group that has three or more members who engage in criminal street gang activity. Committing crimes that would be felonies for an adult is one of a gang's "primary activities." Members share an identity, maybe a name, a sign or a symbol.

Part of the new law's intent is to prevent the growth of gangs by developing community-based intervention programs whose aim is to stop young people from joining gangs in the first place. But the law also provides for tougher penalties for confirmed gang members by making it a felony to belong to a gang, encourage others to join a gang, or participate in a drive-by shooting.

The issue of street gangs in the Triangle made big news last month when a fight between rival gangs at a North Raleigh mall resulted in a near-riot involving hundreds of youngsters. Police said this was "gang-related."

Days later, N.C. State University police investigated a gang-related campus shooting that was reportedly ordered by a gang member in custody at the Wake County jail. At least two of the people involved, a victim and suspect who were both N.C. State students, admitted to being members of the Crips gang. Police called it a "gang hit."

State officials say the definition of a gang contained in a gang prevention act will give prosecutors the elements needed to prove someone is actually a gang member.

David Jones, the director of the Governors Crime Commission, said the definition of gangs contained in the legislation will also be used by NC GangNet, an Internet database that allows law enforcement to share intelligence to solve crimes, monitor and track gang activity.

The definition also will help state officials determine whether gang intervention, suppression and prevention strategies are working.

"Before the legislation was passed there weren't many standards out there except for the Regional Information Sharing System run by the FBI," Jones said. "It was pretty much up to local law enforcement in many cases to determine who belonged to a gang. There was some access with information from vice detectives investigating drugs or violent crimes getting shared, but it was very piecemeal."

Target guns, DA says

Wake County District Attorney Colin Willoughby said he does not think anyone can say how effective the new law will be.

"There are some parts that are helpful, like the part that makes a drive-by shooting a more serious crime," Willoughby said, "but I'm not sure how effective it will be in proving someone is a member of a gang."

Willoughby said state prosecutors need a much stronger tool that includes tougher penalties for individuals who commit felony crimes while in possession of a firearm.

"There should be a significant enhancement for selling drugs with a gun stuck down in your belt or for breaking into someone's home while in possession of a firearm," Willoughby said. "Firearms are a significant part of gang violence."

For several years, law enforcement agencies across the state formed their own unique definitions of what is a gang. Police were using the terms "gang-related" and "gang-involved" to describe crimes where the youthful participants were identified as gang members.

Gang experts say uniformity in the reporting of gangs and gang-related activities is critical, not only for determining how to best get a handle on the issue, but also to better inform communities whose perception of gangs is often subject to sensational headlines that often causes public outcry.

In a report this spring to the legislature, the Governor's Crime Commission noted that gangs were once thought of "as a bunch of kids acting out and not deserving of law enforcement tracking."

The commission's report found that as recently as five years ago, many law enforcement agencies -- including Raleigh and Charlotte -- had little or no data on gangs and gang members in their jurisdictions. Only recently, it said, have communities started to acknowledge a gang problem.

Gang units take action

The new awareness can be seen in the number of law enforcement agencies that have gang units or at least officers trained to recognize gang activities. The number of gang units in police and sheriffs' departments across the state jumped from just 12 in 1999 to 86 in 2007, the commission reported. Moreover, hundreds of agencies across the state are receiving funding to suppress gangs and thwart gang activities.

The report indicated that gangs have not necessarily grown as much as awareness of the problem has grown.

"With these newly trained officers came an awareness of the extent of the problem so long ignored," said the report, "A Comprehensive Assessment of Gangs in North Carolina." "This does not constitute a growth but a recognition of what already existed."

In 2003, the Durham Police Department and Durham County Sheriff's Office submitted to the commission a proposal to start a county-wide database to monitor and track gangs.

Shortly after the system was in place, Durham was flooded with requests from other law agencies across the state who wanted to join the system. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department also approached the commission for funding after they found that Charlotte's gang activity was spreading to the western part of the state.

Last year, the commission developed GangNet statewide. Now law enforcement across the state can share criminal information about gang members. Law enforcement officers can enter into the database information about individuals who must meet two of eleven validation criteria or who have admitted gang membership.

Jones, the crime commission director, declined to share the 11 criteria or the GangNet training curriculum.

"We don't publicize the criteria because we don't want to let the gang members know what we are looking for or they will try to conceal it," he said.

But others say the new legislation -- used in tandem with a list of criteria to identify gang members that includes style of dress, terminology, gestures and affiliations with known gang members -- makes easier the racial profiling of young black men.

Potential for profiling

"I call it the Hip Hop Patriot Act," says the Rev. Paul Scott, a Durham minister, lecturer and community activist. "But a preemptive strike against all gang members is not the solution. I liken the war on gangs to the war on terror that people were in agreement with after Sept. 11. But in retrospect, we have grown to regret it."

Ricky High is a former St. Augustine's College basketball coach who is a long-time gang outreach worker and member of the Wake County Gang Prevention Partnership. He wonders about the practicality of a law that could set up poor white, black and Hispanic youngsters with felony records before they turn 21.

"From what I'm seeing, there's really no way to identify kids who are wearing urban wear as gang members," he said. "Kids all over Raleigh are wearing gang paraphernalia. I see kids at the bus stop downtown in Moore Square throwing gang signs. But does that mean they are members of a gang?"

High said he first saw evidence of a gang presence in Raleigh in 1990 while working as a dormitory director at St. Augustine's College. A student had scrawled a gang sign on a dorm wall.

"It was a Gangsta Disciple sign," High said. "I talked with the kid. His dad was a Chicago cop."