Conversing with gang members is about as appealing as doing your taxes — it’s not something I (or very likely, you) particularly want to do. Gang members and I don’t have a whole lot in common — I’ve never been jumped in and they’ve never been sworn in. Gang members are criminals who don’t like law enforcement and I have no love for them either.
But, like the tax rebate check you get as your reward for your labors at tax time, conversations with gang members can pay dividends. What dividends, you ask? Here are four:
1. Gathering Intelligence: It’s difficult to learn about the inner workings of a gang. What better source is there than actual gang members?
2. Learning about Gang Culture: This is useful when testifying as a gang expert. When I’ve testified in gang cases, the majority of times, I’ve been asked if I have had conversations with gang members.
3. Positively Intervening in a Person’s Life: A personal conversation with an “at risk” individual may lead to a change in attitude about gangs.
4. Cultivating Informants: You never know who may be looking to get on the payroll or work off a case…
Two Key Dos:
1. Seek common ground. I’ve found sports to be a good starting point. Cops, crooks, and everyone in between follow sports. It’s a good ice breaker (“I see you’re wearing 49ers gear. Are you a fan?”).
2. Seek one-on-one conversations. Its difficult to speak with a group of gangsters. Due to the pack mentality they are going to be reluctant to tell you much in front of their peers, fearing they may say the wrong thing and become an outcast. Car stops and bicycle stops are good places to engage in a one-on-one conversation.
Custodial situations work well, too. I recently arrested a gangster for a domestic violence charge. While in the company of other gang members and police officers he was, in a word, a jerk.
After I got him in the patrol car and we ironed out our differences, he was a wealth of information about his gang.
Just be mindful of any potential Miranda issues.
Three Important Don’ts:
1. Don’t try to “talk the talk.” When officers try to use street slang in an attempt to foster rapport with gang members, it backfires every time.
Gangsters have a unique language that is constantly changing so trying to imitate would appear less than genuine. It’s better to speak in plain language and avoid big words (we’re not dealing with English majors).
2. Don’t let them control the conversation. You started the conversation for a reason; don’t let them turn it back on you.
This can happen when you’re gathering intelligence. Remember, gangsters gather intel, too.
While serving in gang units I’ve had many gangsters try to gather intel from me that would be useful for them, such as what days and hours we’re on the street to what types of “undos” (undercover cars) we drive.
You’re supposed to be gathering intel, not giving it up.
3. Don’t lose ground. If an attempt to “chew the fat” with a gangster — or gangsters — turns adversarial, don’t turn tail and drive off. The last thing you want to do is lose face and appear weak around them.
If enough probable cause exists maybe you turn it into a standard gang suppression enforcement contact complete with Terry search(es).
You can always try again another day when better conditions exist.