By Dr. Steve Albrecht
The scope of the criminal gang problem in this country is hard to measure accurately. We know from FBI, Department of Justice, and state and local police statistics that there are around 33,000 known gangs, with over 1 million active members. This includes people engaged in "criminal activity, using a gang name, insignia, colors, hand signs, initiation rites, a code of conduct, and other forms of affiliation that show an organized approach to their illegal activities." Examples include street or prison gangs, most often organized by race; motorcycle gangs; white supremacy gangs; or the more well-known organized crime gangs, like the Italian Mafia seen in the movies, but also consisting of multinational gang members from hundreds of countries around the world.
When it comes to street gangs, most of their activities center around drug sales; extorting "street tax" money from other gangs and business owners; burglarizing homes or businesses; robbing people or businesses; stealing cars; stealing large amounts of retail goods; protecting their territory/turf; and using retaliatory violence against each other. We see near-daily stories about drive-by shootings that leave ordinary innocent people, or their kids, dead from getting caught in the crossfire. In other words, you do not want a street gang to occupy your library. And yet, it happens.
Many gangs use a "rings of membership" model to signify who does what, based on their status. The "OGs" or "Original Gangsters" are either the founders or related to the past founders of the gang; some can range from 30 to 50 to even 70 years old. The "Shotcallers" are often the ones who organize most of the activities and keep the peace inside the gang. They report to the OGs. The "Prospects" are prospective members of the gang, who are trying to earn their way into full membership - through selling drugs, stealing, and harming rival gang members (or the responding police). The "Wannabes" are young people who may not ever rise to the level of full membership, but hang around the gang for status, protection, and support. Some gang members allow females as full members, but this is rare, and many young women never go past "Wannabe" status, even though they engage in just as many dangerous, illegal activities as the male full members. (Females often carry guns, drugs, and money for other gang members, knowing that the police are much less likely to search them.)
Some gang members may go to the library for the simple reason that they are in middle school or high school and need to do their homework. Some gang members attend school and graduate and go on to college. This path to an education makes it easier for them to leave the gang life, which as you can imagine, is not as easy as quitting a job at a local fast-food restaurant and walking away. (The phrase, "Blood In-Blood Out," signifies their usual entry and exit from the gang.)
More likely, gang members will meet at the library because it is perceived as a safe place, or is "neutral territory," a building in between gang neighborhood jurisdictional lines. Most often, gang members see the library as an easy place they can steal from; mark, tag, paint, etch, or scratch their gang name, street nicknames, colors, or monikers into the walls, restrooms, or into materials; sell drugs; recruit new members; or intimidate other kids or adults. Their usual interactions with library staff can range from neutral to polite, to harassing and threatening. (I worked on a threat assessment case in Los Angeles, where a female library employee was dropped off for work each day at the facility by her brother, a longtime prison gang member. He was shot and wounded by a rival gang, in front of the library, two separate times. She was a good person; he had some issues. Not an easy case to manage.)
Let's acknowledge that six kids sitting together is not a gang. But as quoted here by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry website, these are the warning signs for possible gang interest, activity, recruitment, exploitation, and potential membership. Library leaders and staffers should pay attention to these warning signs and potentially problematic behaviors in children, students, and young adults they see in their facilities:
"There are many signs that parents and guardians can use to tell if a child may be involved in gang activity. These include:
- Having unexplained money, expensive new items, or clothing.
- Wearing clothing of all one type, style, or color, or changing appearance with special haircuts, tattoos or other body markings.
- Using of hand signs, special slang or words with hidden messages, or having gang graffiti on walls or personal items.
- Associating with known gang members.
- Withdrawing from family, not obeying curfews, changing or worsening attitude with adults and peers.
- Using or possessing drugs.
- Carrying weapons."
Your first step, should you have fears and concerns about gang activity in your library, should be to set an in-person meeting with your local police or sheriff's department, preferably with an officer or deputy who has beat responsibility for your area; a School Resource Officer (SRO) from a nearby campus; or a detective with the Gang Unit. Explain the situation you're seeing and ask for their advice.
You may be able to get immediate (better) help and support from a local gang prevention social services agency. Most of these groups are founded and run by former hardcore gang members, who have made it their mission for the rest of their lives to promote an anti-gang message to the kids and young adults they encounter, especially those who are in the "Prospect" or "Wannabe" stage of involvement. These men can speak the language of the streets on your behalf, and talk to current or possible gang members about staying away from the library. Their guidance and wisdom for these types of interventions far exceed what the police could do. Seek them out.
Second, immediately remove any library materials that have been marked with gang signs. Have the janitorial, maintenance, Public Works, or Facilities staff paint over or repair parts of the library that have been marked. The reason is simple: tagging, left unremoved or unrepaired, just encourages more of the same. Worse yet, rival gangs will come into the library to paint, pen, or scratch over the first gang's marks. This type of escalating behavior among them often leads to retaliation violence.
(Best to do all repairs before or after business hours, so no one connected to the gang sees this activity being done. To them, painting over their gang marks is akin to painting over the Mona Lisa. The fact that they don't take kindly to it shouldn't stop you; just be discreet when making all repairs.)
Gang members are hypersensitive to being embarrassed or slighted, especially in front of their peers, their rivals, or their girlfriends. Be careful not to disrespect a male or female of any age, that you suspect may be a gang member or otherwise affiliated with a gang. They have long memories of any encounter where they felt talked down to or were treated in a dismissive or condescending manner. You can still be firm, fair, consistent, and reasonable as you apply library policy or your Code of Conduct, just keep your tone and body language neutral and professional. Choosing the right staff member or library supervisor to say what needs to be said can help a lot too.
I have heard some library directors use the bold step of having the police issue gang members a trespass warning or even getting a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) against a group of known (or what are called "documented") gang members. This step is not without its real perils. Talk to the police in detail before you go in this direction, as it is an all-in, go-nuclear decision. (These people are not great rule-followers and don't like being told what to do or where to do it.)
Last, your highest-risk activity, in terms of solving the problem of gang activity in your library, would be to meet with the teenagers or adults you see or can determine are the leaders. I have seen this work in high-stress situations (one of my colleagues, who was the Security Chief for the Washington DC school system, did it safely and it led to a successful "peace treaty" between several school campuses and the gangs). The right person from the library is the key to this being a successful, useful, safe meeting. Explain your expectations, carefully, without threats, and ask for their help to get their crew to leave for good or comply with library rules.
Gangs have infiltrated every state, most cities, and even many small towns. Pay attention to what you see and get help to address it, safely and early.