Experts: Street Crime Too Often Blamed on Gangs

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Jed Kirschbaum / AP

Police stand guard at row homes in Baltimore where a gunman opened fire at a backyard cookout

The night was typical of summer backyard get-togethers on the east side of Baltimore. A DJ was spinning favorite tunes. The barbecue grill was fired up. People laughed, children played. The atmosphere at the picnic, which was organized to honor two men who were killed on the streets a year before, was good.

But as the Baltimore Sun reported, the violence that had brought the lives of Donell Rogers and Quinton Hogan to an end returned to disrupt their memorial. At least one gunman armed with a semiautomatic weapon cut down 12 people, including a pregnant 23-year-old woman and a 2-year-old. The rest of the night saw six more people shot in the neighborhood, two of whom died. A man has been charged in one of the shootings, but it is unclear if it was connected to the cookout.

Authorities have described the incident as gang-related. But the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office has not confirmed that it was in fact a gang shooting. No gang business was being transacted: there does not appear to have been a drug deal involved. The violence seems to have stemmed from a yearlong retribution pattern between two "gangs" that, while involved in selling drugs, were at each other's throats mainly because of the kidnapping of two younger brothers of a man who is linked with one of the groups. At least five homicides are believed to be part of the chain.

Crime attributed to gang violence has been going up even as the nation's overall violent crime rate has been decreasing (it was down 2.5% in 2008 from the year before). But rather than look at such incidents as ordered up by gang bosses, some experts are beginning to see them as the product of a street culture of feuds, vendettas, retribution and violent one-upmanship that pervade what are commonly called gangs but which may not be gangs at all.

In February, the National Gang Threat Assessment report, released by the Department of Justice, concluded that there are 20,000 street, prison and biker gangs in the country, with about 1 million members. In some communities, the report said, gangs account for as much as 80% of the crime. The report also said that 58% of law-enforcement agencies saw an increase of gang activity in 2008, up from 45% in 2004.

But simply labeling such crimes as "gang-related" does not explain what is happening on the streets. Criminal-justice experts are beginning to believe that a majority of the violence does not result from directives from any formal gang hierarchy, but rather that it is the result of beefs between smaller neighborhood groups that can be started by anything from a kidnapping, as in the Baltimore case, to a simple look of disrespect on a rival's face. A fistfight among young men can escalate into drive-by shootings that elicit identical retribution, finally leading to the slaying of people who may or may not have been involved, including innocent bystanders. Says David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice: "People think they are organized and [part of] making money on the streets, but for the most part, all of that is wrong. What you usually find are groups that fit none of the above descriptions." He adds, "What you find out doesn't fit people's preconceptions, and it's still very real."

Kennedy calls the phenomenon a "formless street scene" with three tiers. The first is petty criminals who may or may not have gang affiliations. Then there are actual gangs such as Crips, Bloods and MS-13, whose members wear colors, use hand signs and tags and stake out turf. At the highest level is organized crime like the Mafia, which largely eschews violence (until deemed necessary) because it's bad for business.

On the South Side of Chicago, gangs like the Folks Nations, the Gangster Disciples and others have begun to erode. The power vacuum is being filled by gang subsets, wannabes and factions with weak leadership. "Now you have a lot of renegades, and 70% of the young men are on the defense," explains Tio Hardiman, gang mediation director for CeaseFire, an antiviolence organization that has been replicated in several cities. "So you have shooters all over the place."

Most of the crime, Kennedy says, takes place on a level between the petty crooks and thugs, which in cities like Baltimore represents the lion's share of violence. He says the so-called gangs are really just informal street groups that represent an overwhelming share of the violence. "They are not killing each other over money or turf," he says. "They are killing each other over honor and vendettas." And while these groups are small, their effect is wide. A Cincinnati study, in which Kennedy participated, found that "street groups" accounted for three-tenths of 1% of the city's population but are connected with 75% of its homicides. Kennedy estimates that of the 14,831 nationwide killings counted in the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, half are driven by these groups. "Street code says if you're disrespected, you have to hurt someone," he explains. "That is the most powerful influence out there."

Margaret T. Burns, spokeswoman for the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office, says viewing incidents like the one at the cookout as just gang violence is an easy way to package and discard the trouble. "It's so easy to calm everyone down and say these are two feuding gangs," she says. "Calling it a gang is a response that calms public fears but may not be necessarily accurate."