‘Some 20,000 violent street gangs, motorcycle gangs, and prison gangs with nearly one million members are criminally active in the U.S. today. Many are sophisticated and well organized; all use violence to control neighborhoods and boost their illegal money-making activities, which include robbery, drug and gun trafficking, fraud, extortion, and prostitution rings. We’re redoubling our efforts to disrupt and dismantle gangs through intelligence-driven investigations and new initiatives and partnerships.’
First, we hear about the ever-growing gang problem. ‘58 percent of state and local law enforcement agencies reported that criminal gangs were active in their jurisdictions in 2008 compared with 45 percent of state and local agencies in 2004.’ Today, ‘Criminal gangs commit as much as 80 percent of the crime in many communities, according to law enforcement officials throughout the nation. Typical gang-related crimes include alien smuggling, armed robbery, assault, auto theft, drug trafficking, extortion, fraud, home invasions, identity theft, murder, and weapons trafficking.’
Then, we go on to read the horrific details of gang-related crime and some interesting snap-shots of specific criminal organisations. Having recently seen the excellent Sons of Anarchy boxed-set, which features a criminal biker gang, I was particular drawn to this description:
‘Outlaws Motorcycle Club has more than 1,700 members belonging to 176 chapters in the United States and 12 foreign countries. U.S. law enforcement authorities estimate that Outlaws has more than 94 chapters in 22 states with more than 700 members. Outlaws also identifies itself as the American Outlaws Association (A.O.A.) and Outlaws Nation. Outlaws is the dominant OMG in the Great Lakes region. Gang members produce, transport, and distribute methamphetamine and transport and distribute cocaine, marijuana and, to a lesser extent, MDMA. Outlaws members engage in various criminal activities, including arson, assault, explosives operations, extortion, fraud, homicide, intimidation, kidnapping, money laundering, prostitution operations, robbery, theft, and weapons violations. It competes with HAMC [Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club] for membership and territory.’
I can’t deny that there is some pretty organised criminal activity in the U.S. But I just think that it’s very important to expose some of the flaws with this kind of reporting. First, the implication is very strongly that crime is on the rise. Given that homicides have fallen around 50% in the last 20 years and property crime is down a similar amount, this is clearly not the case. So even if the gang problem is getting worse (which is possible but debatable) U.S. readers shouldn’t be too alarmed.
Second, the report clearly implies that gangs are responsible for a high share of crime (‘Criminal gangs commit as much as 80 percent of the crime in many communities’). This is a truly extraordinary claim. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistic itself almost instantly disproves such assertions. It’s supplementary report on the motives for homicides, for example, shows that just 6 percent of homicides were known to be gang related in 2005 (latest available data shown).
Third, there’s a clear problem with both the data in this report and the way it’s used. Let’s take the stat ’58 percent of state and local law enforcement agencies reported that criminal gangs were active…’. This is a basic double counting error: if a local law enforcement agency has gang activity then by default the state enforcement agencies overseeing it do too – and this inflates estimates. Let’s also look again at some of that language: ‘Outlaws members engage in various criminal activities including arson…’. Well, they might, but medical gangs (aka doctors) also have members who engage in mass homicide but this doesn’t mean I should think all doctors are murderers or that doctors kill because they are members of the medical profession.
Generally speaking, practical fears of crime have been falling in line with crime over the past 20 years. But there is still a well known ‘perception gap’. While people are more likely to guess (correctly) that crime in their local area is falling, most people continue to think crime is rising nationally even when it’s falling. The media often get blamed for this failure. They may partly deserve it. But this kind of ridiculous sensationalism from government agencies like the FBI certainly isn’t helpful.