4 good reasons to pursue gang cases

Even when victims and witnesses won’t cooperate, gang detectives need to find other ways to put cases together — here’s why


I recently had a conversation with an officer who was investigating a gang-related assault. He expressed his frustrations in trying to deal with uncooperative “victims” — rival gang members — who refused to provide any useful information that would help solve the case. The witnesses were reluctant as well, fearing retribution for helping the police.

This is not a new phenomenon. I’ve had similar conversations with other officers and detectives about why we bother investigating seemingly victimless crimes where gang members commit acts of violence against rival gang members.

Here’s why we do it.

1.) Gang cases are suspect-oriented, not victim-oriented. In most cases, as cops, we address the needs of the victim. Getting the victim help, keeping the victim safe, generally addressing the victim’s issues and concerns. It’s the opposite in gang cases. The focus is on bringing the suspect to justice. We want the suspect to get prosecuted to the maximum extent of the law, primarily to keep him warehoused as long as possible.

If a gang member is incarcerated, he can’t commit crimes in a public setting. It’s as simple as that. More time in jail or prison equals less time on the street.

2.) Yesterday’s victim is today’s suspect. In the back-and-forth world of gang crime, the role of suspect and victim changes constantly. When one gang does a drive-by on a rival gang, the other gang retaliates. In gang culture, an act of violence by a rival has to be answered with a crime that is equal to or even more violent than the original. Failure to do so would result in the gang collectively, or gang members individually, losing respect and status. It’s up to us to break that cycle.

From an investigative standpoint, the “tit for tat” element of gang crime can be beneficial. When two gangs go to war and a retaliatory assault occurs, a good place to start the investigation is with the victims of the first case.

More often than not, they have some involvement in the payback crime, either by committing it or by assisting in its commission. Since gang crimes are already conspiratorial in nature by virtue of the fact that they involve multiple suspects (a gang), this makes it is easier to identify and prosecute suspects.

3.) Prevent collateral damage. All too often the victims of gang crimes are the uninvolved. The classic example is the drive-by shooting. Gang members will indiscriminately spray a location with gunfire, resulting in innocent persons getting hit.

I recently investigated a shooting where the suspect fired multiple rounds into the second story apartment of a rival gang member. There were five other residents there, including an elementary school age boy. Fortunately no one was hit. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case. Getting a gang member locked up could prevent these types of tragedies from occurring.

4.) Discourage bad behavior. In most jurisdictions, charging a crime as gang crime means increased penalties for offenders. In California, for example, a non-violent crime such as witness intimidation, when charged as a gang crime, can result in a “life behind bars” sentence.

I don’t believe that this will end gang crime, but if it discourages even a few subjects from joining a gang, then it is worth it. It also spreads the message that the courts — and society in general — have little tolerance for gang crime.

Conclusion
Gang crimes can be difficult to investigate. With generally uncooperative gang members as victims, investigators have to rely on different means of solving crimes than victim statements and victims picking out suspects from lineups.

Gang detectives have to be creative in how they investigate these crimes and what tools they use: phone search warrants for text messages and cell phone tower information, search warrants for social media, monitoring of jail calls, forensic investigations based on DNA and ballistic evidence, and so on. Much of it is mundane — and often tedious — but it allows solid cases to be built on circumstantial evidence. When victims and witnesses won’t cooperate, gang detectives need to find other ways to put cases together.

I think this is one of the most overlooked aspects of detective work by investigators (and administrators) who aren’t involved in gang cases. Gang detectives do in-depth, comprehensive investigations that are on par with — or, in some cases, more complex than — the types of investigations conducted by homicide detectives, sexual assault detectives, robbery detectives, and others.

I believe this misconception comes from the fact that many gang detectives are also tasked with doing gang suppression in the field, which tends to overshadow the investigative component. In reality most gang detectives wear at least two hats: high-profile anti-gang enforcement (hat #1) on the street, coupled with investigating and solving gang crimes (hat #2). In addition, many gang units also deal with street-level narcotics, violent crime suppression, vice, and any other hot-button issues that pop in their jurisdictions.

Sir Edmund Burke is widely credited with saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” If police officers don’t do whatever it takes to arrest and prosecute gang members despite the inherent difficulties involved, they have in essence allowed evil to prevail. It’s our job, as good men and women, to do something.

About the author

Nick Perna is a Police Officer with the Redwood City Police Department in Northern California. He has spent much of his career as a gang and narcotics investigator. He is a member of a Multi-Jurisdictional SWAT Team since 2001 and is currently a Team Leader. He previously served as a paratrooper in the US Army and is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has a Master’s Degree from the University Of San Francisco.

Contact Nick Perna

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