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Back to Archives | Back to December 2005 Contents 

The Street Gangs of Tucson

By Michael Garigan, Captain, and George D. Rodriguez, Lieutenant, Tucson, Arizona, Police Department

Tucson's Strategy
The foremost problem every city faces with regard to gangs is accepting that a problem existed. Once the gang denial hurdle is overcome, police can put a strategic plan in place. In 1994 Tucson officials recognized the gang problem and instituted a plan to control gang crime in Tucson.

Tucson's antigang strategy involved enforcement, intervention, and education, and the Tucson Police Department Gang Interdiction Unit was involved in every facet of the strategy. Of the three components, enforcement has been the most effective.

Gang Culture
In order to apply effective enforcement strategies to the gang problem, police need to understand the basic characteristics of gang culture. Gang crime is recidivistic in nature. Criminal street gangs commit crimes to achieve goals, such as claiming territory or illicit markets. Gang leaders use other members in the group to commit their crimes. Street gangs use violence to achieve their goals.

Gang Structure: Tucson police officers note that common street gangs lack a formal hierarchy; instead, they have either situational leadership or a core group of leaders that give the gang its criminal purpose. Often, a member who demonstrates or asserts control at a particular time assumes the leadership role. In smaller gangs, it is more likely that a single individual will become the recognized leader.

Typically, law enforcement is hesitant to accept the criminal structure of a street gang as a foundation for organized-crime investigations. Nevertheless, showing this criminal structure can provide law enforcement with the necessary elements for employing antiracketeering statutes against street gangs because the gang members commit crimes as members of the group. Tucson has successfully prosecuted street gangs using the state version of the federal antiracketeering statutes.

But employing the antiracketeering statutes does have its challenges. Between 1996 and 1998 Tucson's conspiracy investigations were very effective, until prosecutors were dissuaded by the workload these cases created.

Detectives and officers must develop an expertise in working the gang culture for enforcement to be effective and efficient. In Tucson, gang expertise has proven to be critical in solving crime and making courtroom presentations.

Gang Crimes: As gangs mature; they typically shift their focus from territorial rivalry to economic crimes. Gang members no longer fight over colors or turf; their disputes are over money and illicit markets.

The gang culture presents inherent prosecution obstacles. In order for juries to have a better appreciation of the gang culture, gang detectives are expected to testify as experts. Victims and witnesses are normally other gang members who present credibility concerns and will continue to commit crimes pending the judicial process. As members of gang squads sometimes say, "Today's victim is tomorrow's suspect." Gang detectives are able to work through this phenomenon and remain relentless in bringing their cases to successful conclusions.

Gang Violence: Violence is almost always used to achieve the gang's criminal objectives, and violent criminal acts are committed to further the gang's influence. Gang members understand the power of intimidation and use this tool their advantage.

Gang violence is an effective intimidation weapon against prosecution witnesses. Tucson's gang detectives now transport victims and witnesses to hearings and trials for their testimony. In order to be successful, gang detectives must address intimidation tactics that gang associates use in and out of the courtroom.

Preliminary hearings are useful because they preserve testimony that witnesses and victims may not be in a position to provide as court cases proceed through the system. In other cases, witnesses and victims have been subpoenaed before grand juries for their testimony. Their refusal to testify or their delivery of perjurious testimony has led to witness and victim arrest.

A Gang Career
Between 1990 and 2000 the average age of a gang member was between 12 and 18. Many were tried as adults for the crimes they committed. Today's gang member is between the ages of 17 and 25 In addition, many gang members who were first incarcerated in the mid-1990s are being released from prison.

Tucson is finding that gang members who were recently released from prison are offending again within three years of their release. U.S. Department of Justice studies find that 67.5 percent of prison inmates who were imprisoned for violent offenses offend again within three years of their release.2 In addition to first-time criminals in the criminal justice system, the career criminal continues to add to the violent crime rate. This data supports the premise that most criminals choose a criminal lifestyle. In this context, criminal behavior is considered an individual choice.

Besides contending with the recidivism problem, Tucson faces the release of suspects who reoffend and revictimize while pending trial. A small segment of society, estimated to be between 5 and 7 percent, chooses to be a criminal. But this small percentage commits a series of crimes before they are apprehended and after they are arrested and released. Current justification for the frequent pretrial release lies with overcrowded detention facilities. Although the pretrial release of most suspects is based on ties to the community and tangible promises to appear in court, the difficulty is determining who might reoffend and the system's inability to keep suspects away from society.

Gang members are known to be serial criminals. Recently, a newspaper reporter told Tucson officers that he could not see why so much effort went into addressing the drug and gang crime problem in Tucson. The reporter based his comment on the fact that most violent crime is perpetrated between gang members and drug dealers, so let them just finish each other off. Why spend all of law enforcement's energy and effort on solving these crimes?

History provides the reporter's answer. The 1930s are remembered as the gangster era. During those times, many persons advocated ignore the gangs because it was just gangsters killing each other. What is overlooked is that the criminal mind internalizes lack of accountability as freedom to act at will. With this apathy in place, the 1930s gangster crime resulted in the incidental killing of innocents in public places. The average citizen no longer felt safe walking down the street or eating at a favorite restaurant.

Tucson's answer to the reporter is simple. Criminals must expect that they will be held accountable and that there are consequences for their behavior. Accountability and consequences are key components in controlling criminal street gangs.

Firearms and Gangs
Nationally, firearms account for the death of 70 percent of all homicides.3 In 1997 the Gang Interdiction Unit and GTAC began to work gun shows held in Tucson. These deployments proved to be successful in apprehending and convicting gang members, and other criminals, for purchasing firearms. Since most of these criminals were convicted felons, the purchase of firearms by them was illegal. Project Exile, a federal firearms program, was used to prosecute these cases.4 State and federal prosecutors would review the investigation and decide which court system would provide the most significant impact for the investigation. Law enforcement and prosecutor cooperation was vital in this effort.

In August 2000 the foundation of the Tucson Police Department's prohibited possessor prosecution program was established in collaboration with the International Association of Chiefs Police through the IACP's interdicting illegal firearms program. By July 2003, Project Safe Neighborhoods allowed gun prosecutors to be added to the county prosecutor's office. These attorneys coordinate with federal prosecutors and aggressively pursue gun offenders. Today, a prohibited possessor identification system is housed within the Tucson's Investigations Division. Prosecution of prohibited possessors is accomplished in cooperation with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives' Project Safe Neighborhood program. Daily enforcement of prohibited possessor and firearms statutes are accomplished after the Gang Interdiction Unit checks police contacts of known gang members. If a gang member is reported to have been in possession of a firearm, the status of his right to possess a firearm is established. If the gang member is determined to be a prohibited possessor, he or she is arrested for illegal possession of the firearm.

Gun cases have increased gang detectives' workload by 82 percent, but the decrease in gang-related violent crime suggests that the extra work is paying off. Figure 1 shows the number of weapons cases assigned in 2002 as compared to 2003.

Intelligence Gathering
The strategic design for intelligence gathering includes the development of a comprehensive database that tracks all known gang members and associates. The database must be a secure network that allows access for those persons who have a need to know as well as allowing access for patrol officers, detectives, supervisors, and other law enforcement groups when they have legitimate need. The Tucson database, which contains information on 3,100 gang members, is managed by a crime analyst.

The data are gathered from a large array of sources. For a gang member to be placed into the database, he or she must meet at least one of the seven criteria for classification as a criminal street gang member, as established by the Arizona Revised Statutes.5 The intelligence is gleaned from arrests, weekly gang investigation meetings, gang member identification cards (GMIC) completed by Tucson officers, and other reliable sources. The database was developed in 1994 and tracks both local and migratory gangs. The database captures the following data:

  • Personal data on the gang member or associate, which includes aliases; home, school and work addresses; and phone numbers

  • Associate information

  • Associated and registered vehicles

  • Facts and circumstances surrounding how the information was derived

  • Information that confirms that the subject is a gang member or associate

Most of this information is obtained from field interviews and incident reports generated by officers and detectives. In addition, the information is exchanged at weekly meetings attended by probation and parole officers, officers and detectives in the metropolitan area, school security staff, and social service agency representatives. Information exchanged at these meetings is memorialized in the meeting's minutes. When the gang database is queried, gang minutes are also searched for suspect name, vehicle, or keywords from the search request.

The gang database has proved to be a very effective tool in capturing gang members who have been arrested by patrol officers. The Tucson Police Department uses Coplink as its integrating computer program. Officers who need to follow leads for a suspect, vehicle, or address use Coplink, which performs searches even when officers have limited suspect information.

Coplink links Tucson's computer-aided dispatch system, records management system, the gang database, and all of the department's computerized databases in a single program. Coplink also interfaces with law enforcement databases outside the Tucson area. For example, Coplink has brought the Tucson and Phoenix Police Departments together by virtue of technology, and the cities are 120 miles apart. The Phoenix Police Department and the Tucson Police Department share law enforcement databases through Coplink. Soon, Coplink will integrate databases between Tucson police and the Pima County Sheriff's Department, the San Diego Police Department, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Border Protection. As other police departments in Arizona approve Coplink intergovernmental agreements, law enforcement will have finally closed the gap on the transient gang criminal.

Computer-aided searches allow gang investigators in the Tucson Police Department to seek maximum prosecution for gang members who can slip through the cracks of the criminal justice system. Gang supervisors can query our computer databases using Structured Query Language, or SQL (pronounced "sequel"), for matches on gang members who had recent police contacts. These queries have resulted in upgrading simple carrying concealed weapons charges that were made in the field to prohibited possessor indictments. In Arizona, concealed weapons charges are misdemeanors. A suspect could pay a fine for these charges and bring closure to the misdemeanor charge. Since many gang members are convicted felons, these searches have allowed gang investigators to dismiss misdemeanor charges and file felony prohibited possessor charges against the suspect. Computer programs have simplified tracking suspect's activities and maximizing their accountability in the criminal justice system.

The intelligence that is gathered, stored, and retrieved becomes clearly relevant when a crime occurs, suspects are identified, and the arrest takes place. As a rule, the system notes any possible trends and purges persons who have shown not gang activity within the last 5 years.

Police departments of any size can institute a targeted gang enforcement program. The Tucson Police Department's gang database began with the use of index cards, field photographs, and file folders that organized information officers collected during their gang contacts. At a minimal expense, today's user-friendly computer programs allow gang units to store and retrieve gang information with ease. Police departments with laptops or mobile tactical computers can access this information in the field where this information is most useful.

Specialized Investigations
Specialized investigations are important to a successful gang strategy. Gang officers and detectives tend to develop the expertise and can readily identify members and gang rivalries when crimes are committed. This leads to high solvability rates that investigative details that do not specialize in these investigations do not enjoy.

Homicide: Until 1998 the Tucson Police Department Homicide Detail investigated gang murders. The Homicide Detail uses motive for classifying murder cases. However, using motive to classify gang crime will underreport the gang problem. In many cases, motive is difficult to determine or distracts from the essence of gang crime. The Gang Unit classifies some crimes as gang-member-involved when a gang member is involved in a crime. This classification helps Tucson law enforcement more accurately identify the size and scope of the community's gang problem.

Important to the number of gang-related homicides are the clearance rates for these investigations. Before the change in 1998, gang murders were underestimated, according to the gang-related definition that the Gang Unit uses. However, with increased murders, which were identified as gang murders, clearance rates increased to 95 percent from less than a 50 percent. The increased solvability rate with increased numbers of murders can be attributed to the expertise of the gang detectives.

Before 1998 assigning a gang detective to respond to the scene with homicide detectives was not successful because of the lack of ownership and long-term responsibility. Today, Tucson gang detectives investigate gang-related murders, aggravated assaults, robberies, and prohibited possessor cases. The Tucson Police Department considers a crime gang-related when a gang member is involved in a crime, not merely when a crime appears to be gang-motivated. When properly investigated and prosecuted, these crimes can significantly affect the structure of a criminal street gang and its membership.

Assaults: While gang crime is decreasing in Tucson, other areas of the United States are experiencing increases in gang crime. In Tucson, gang-related aggravated assaults have declined 17 percent from 2002 to 2003. Over the past two years, gang-related aggravated assaults decreased by 33 percent. Investigator specialization and the pursuit of gang members from all avenues are responsible for the success in the decline in aggravated assaults. Aggravated assaults provide law enforcement a large statistical base that provides greater insight to the violent crime in a community.

Gang Tactical Street Squad: A tactical street squad supports daily enforcement and intelligence gathering on gang members. The street squad, known as GTAC, comprises officers who know about active street gangs and supports active investigations that gang detectives put together. GTAC officers are tasked with developing information sources on gang activity and provide constant police pressure on gangs. GTAC officers are the main source of information that is put into the gang database. GTAC officers use direct contact and surveillance tactics to achieve their goals. On several occasions, GTAC has been able to identify and track gang suspects responsible for robberies, assaults, and murders. This squad is instrumental in tying investigations and street level enforcement together.

In developing the Tucson gang investigative method, the department integrated three specific elements: intelligence, relentless investigations, and tactical support. These functions place an important focus on the process and close the loop in these interdependent processes.

Although the focus of this article was on investigation, the three-pronged approach of enforcement, intervention, and education is considered important in every local program. The Tucson gang abatement method can be implemented in agencies of all sizes. ■      

1 U.S. Department of Justice, National Youth Gang Survey.
2 U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, June 2002.
3 U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, September 2003.
4 "Project Safe Neighborhoods," USA Bulletin, vol. 50, no. 1., January 2002.
5 Arizona Revised Statutes: 13-105 (8) 1995.



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 12, December 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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