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Since the early 1900s, urban cities and heavily populated areas have had a steadily increasing gang problem, but more recently, gangs have been migrating into suburban and rural areas. The majority of this migration started taking place in 1990. Typical street gangs, no matter where they are located, are involved in violent crimes including the use and sale of firearms, murder, prostitution, as well as the sales of narcotics. For decades, law enforcement entities have been trying to fight off gang related crimes by using more reactive tactics but have been unsuccessful therefore, in 1992 the Federal government felt the need to step in and help out. The Federal Bureau of Investigations formulated the Safe Streets Violent Crime Initiative in which all levels of law enforcement, Federal, State, and Local, would be working together in task forces and acting in a proactive manner to combat the violence and crimes originating from street gangs. Since the start of the initiative, cities that have implemented the program have seen a rise in gang member arrests, a slight decrease in gang related crime, and benefits within all departments involved.
Cities in every area of the United States are being overwhelmed by a very common problem. This problem is so common that it is not just one that can be witnessed in big urban citiesâ€¦no, even beautiful suburban communities and small rural areas are trying to find a solution. The issue plaguing more and more communities is gangs. Not every citizen in the United States may think of gangs as a major problem or even one that pops into their heads when asked what their community's problems are but reality is that these gangs are accountable for the drastically growing percentage of crime and violence (National Drug Intelligence Center, 2009). The Department of Justice has classified a street gang as being "a group or club of five or more individuals whose primary purpose is the commission of one or more criminal offenses" (National Gang Intelligence Center, 2009). A small number of gangs have been around since the early 1900s but it wasn't until the 1970s when the street gangs Americans are familiar with today started to form. The street gangs of today started out in many West Coast communities and by the late 1980s almost every major city in the United States was considered home to one street gang or another (National Gang Intelligence Center, 2009). During the 1990s, gangs found the need to expand even further and started heading into suburban and rural areas (National Gang Intelligence Center, 2009). After major street gangs started settling outside of their usual urban settings, a drastic increase of crime was noted in every type of community. The Federal government decided it was time to step in and help local and state law enforcement agencies solve their crime and drug offenses that were brought in by these gangs. In order to achieve their goals, the FBI came up with and started the Safe Streets Violent Crime Initiative. Law enforcement agencies have found the program to be helpful in ways that not only fought the gang problem their cities faced but also enhanced the abilities and resources of the local law enforcement departments.
Street gangs operate in a way that brings fear to members of the local community in order for the gangs to be respected and are therefore willing to commit any type of crime from simple vandalism to a multiple homicide. The National Gang Threat Assessment, a study that was conducted with the combined efforts of the National Gang Intelligence Center and the National Drug Intelligence Center (2009), states that criminal gangs can account for 80 percent of crime in many communities (National Gang Intelligence Center, 2009). The National Gang Threat Assessment also found that as of September 2008, there are more than 20,000 gangs nationwide that are criminally active and that combined, these gangs make up approximately 1 million gang members (National Drug Intelligence Center, 2009). In 2005, the number of gang members nationwide was at 800,000. Shortly after the assessment came out, the Justice Department released a statement that claimed that these numbers could be as much as 200,000 short since most police departments did not give out their statistics (National Gang Intelligence Center, 2009). When the National Gang Threat Assessment was conducted, 20,000 agencies were asked to participate but only 455 responded (Johnson, 2005). After having studied the drastic rise in gang population, a Chicago activist compared domestic terrorist cases with gang violence and declared that "if the rising problem of gang violence on city streets goes unchecked, eventually gangbangers could be classified as domestic terrorists" (Faire, 2009). The number of gangs is increasing as well as the number of members within each gang, making it even more complicated for a single law enforcement agency to combat the problem alone.
Gangs have learned to recruit new members starting youngâ€¦schools. Gang activity and membership in schools has increased 17 percent from 2003 to 2005 in suburban school districts and in rural communities its risen 33 percent (National Gang Intelligence Center, 2009). With more members the amount of crime has also increased. In 1990, 580 violent incidents related to gangs were accounted for in the city of Phoenix (Operations Safe Street Gang Prevention Initiative-Phoenix, AZ). In 1994, gangs were thought to have committed forty percent of all homicides in Los Angeles County (103 Gang Statistics). In San Diego, fatal gang-related homicides had increased 56 percent from 18 homicides in 2006 to 28 homicides in 2007 and in Salinas, California the increase in gang related homicides was as big as 125 percent (National Gang Intelligence Center, 2009). According to the National Drug Threat Survey 2008, 58 percent of law enforcement agencies have accounted to house gangs in their area that are involved in illegal drug trafficking. Comparing the 2008 survey to the 2004 survey there was a 13 percent increase and it was noted that the majority of the increase came from the newly populated suburban and rural areas (National Drug Intelligence Center, 2009). Regardless of the efforts put in by law enforcement agencies, gang related problems will not be resolved anytime in the near future.
With the constant rise in numbers related to gang related violence, the government quickly realized that it had to step in and help. On January 9, 1992, a press conference was held in Washington DC by the Federal Bureau of Investigations in which they publicized the start of the Safe Streets Violent Crime Initiative (The gang threat: get educated). The newly founded initiative is a program that is built on the combined efforts of Federal, State, and Local law enforcement departments. The program allows law enforcement to take a proactive approach towards fighting their city's gang problem as apposed to the previously used reactive approaches (Safe street task force). The initiative sets up task forces headed by an FBI field agent who works closely with officers from local and state agencies (The gang threat: get educated). San Bernardino County District Attorney, Michael A. Ramos, stated that "A strong team approach is critical in eradicating gangs and, in these tough economic times, it is especially important for law enforcement to join forces to address the gang problem in order to protect the public." U.S. Attorney Anna Mills Wagoner thinks this set up is exactly what the "war on gangs" needs and states, "Gangs do not recognize or operate within law enforcement jurisdictional boundaries-so it is extremely important that all law enforcement agencies cooperate, communicate, and collaborate if we are to be successful in combating gang activity. Safe Streets Task Force insures that we will do just that." The goals of the initiative is to remove leadership and most dangerous members of each gang while using the techniques used by the FBI in organized crime cases (Safe Streets Task Force). Some of the techniques used to by the initiative are new to some of the smaller agencies and include: undercover operations, electronic surveillance, and the development of a solid intelligence base (Safe Streets Violent Crime Initiative Report, 2000). There are four main objectives set up by the FBI: reduce gang-related violent offenses by 5 percent during the summer months; investigate 95 percent of the violent crimes involving criminal street gangs; respond within 5 days to 100 percent of citizens' complaints of criminal street gang activity within their neighborhoods; and maximize the enforcement of weapons violations through the use of appropriate Federal and State prosecutorial venues (Operation Safe Street Gang Prevention Initiatives-Phoenix, AZ).
The idea of combating gang related violence is increasing throughout cities. As of March 31, 2002, 174 task forces in 54 FBI field offices have been created (Safe Streets Task Force) and more cities governments are approving increases in their budget to allow for their police department to become involved in the initiative and start up task forces (Organ, 2009). Within the 174 current task forces are made up of 805 special agents, 251 other federal agents coming from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and 1096 state and local law enforcement officers (Safe Streets Violent Crime Initiative Report, 2000). Funding for the task forces is split between all three entities (Safe Streets Violent Crime Initiative Report, 2000).
The Safe Streets Violent Crime Initiative has been very successful as seen in the results of missions carried out by the various task forces. In Los Angeles, reports show that 40 percent of homicides were gang related but a study by The Los Angeles Times found that the Los Angeles Safe Streets Task Force was able to make more than 2000 arrests between February 1992 and September 1995 (Juvenile Justice Reform Initiatives in the States 1994-1996). In 2007, Concord, New Hampshire erected a task force and since then over 75 individuals have been arrested, more than $200,000 have been recovered, and over 100 firearms have been removed from the streets (US Fed News Service, 2009). Task forces in countless other cities have made arrests, confiscated hundreds of pounds of various narcotics, and took into possession countless illegal firearms (Safe Streets Violent Crime Initiative Report, 2000). Throughout the country, cities have seen such drastic results that former President Bush authorized $90 million in grants towards efforts of combating gangs (Anonymous, 2006).
Initiative Benefits - Law Enforcement
Many police departments, at all levels of the system, have become part of the initiative and have reaped the benefits that it holds. Los Angeles PD Chief, William Bratton, has commented on inter-agency cooperation and states that "commitment to inter-agency cooperation, as this effort has proven, is both productive and beneficial to our communities." (Department of Justice, 2008). The smaller departments are able to benefit from one of the most important aspects of inter-agency cooperation in that it "increases the effectiveness and productivity of limited personnel and logistical resources in some of the smaller departments around the country" (Safe Streets Task Force). Working with other agencies in the task forces increases the manpower in smaller departments without them having to spend more of their budget on new recruits to fill the void. Some other benefits of working with the FBI that other departments have seen are: eliminations of duplicate investigations, subsequent wasteful expenditure of resources on cases with concurrent jurisdictions, and the expansion of cooperation and communication among federal and state law enforcement agencies (Safe Streets Task Force). A lot of departments also do not have the ability to used more novice techniques for their investigations such as: wiretapping, witness protection, consensual monitoring, and financial analysis (FBI, United States Attorney Announce Safe Streets Gang Task Force, 2008) but are able to learn and use them while working with the FBI. Working with the FBI in their initiative is a way for local departments to learn more and become more efficient in their gang war.
Initiative Benefits - Judicial
Having a federal program in place to combat gangs does not only help police departments but also benefits the legal side of a gang related case. When a case is opened and closed under the Safe Streets Violent Crime Initiative, they are filed in the Federal judicial system which has more meticulous sentencing guidelines (Juvenile Justice Reform Initiatives in the States 1994-1996). What becomes the most beneficial factor in trying gang related cases under federal standards, the prosecutors may apply the Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statue to the case (Anonymous, 2006). This enables the prosecutor to try all the gang members instead of just individuals since the gang can be treated as an organized crime organization (Gunnigle, 2006). Julie Gunnigle, author of "Birds of A Feather" RICO: Trying Partners in Crime together, writes that by trying gang members as a group instead of individuals "forces a judge and jury to understand exactly what the defendants have done, in a way that the common law procedural and evidentiary rules did not." RICO lets the jury see that the crimes committed by gangs are more severe in nature and by numbers and that there is not just one person committing the crime as where without RICO, the trial would be seen as a single person being tried for a single crime (Gunnigle, 2006). Since the entire gang is being tried at once, the cases are also being move through the system faster (Gunningle, 2006). The sentencing is also more severe since the prisoners have to carry out the entire sentence due to the fact that the Federal system does not have parole as an option. Federal prisons are also spread out throughout the country so gang members from the same gang can be spread out instead of being housed in the same unit where they could easily continue being strong (Juvenile Justice Reform Initiatives in the States 1994-1996). When a gang case is tried in the Federal judicial system, harsher and more severe punishments are able to be enacted and it is easier for the system to control the gang members once they are behind prison walls.
Initiative Weaknesses - Program
Just like every other program, the Safe Streets Violent Crime Initiative has some problems that need to be worked out. One of the program's biggest benefits-giving the smaller departments help-is also one of the program's biggest weaknesses since it leaves the Federal Government in charge and with more power. This is also known as federalism. The task forces are set up with a FBI agent in charge and with the power to dictate the direction of the investigations (http://www.usconstitution.net). Therefore, although the states and local departments get better equipment, training, an manpower, they have little to no say in what goes on in their original jurisdiction (http://www.usconstitution.net). Although the benefit of trying cases in the Federal system is a great advantage in the initiative, it also has its weaknesses. The amount of gang related cases entering the Federal system is increasing causing the court's backlog to increase (Caseload 2008, 2008). With more cases, a greater case load is also put onto Federal prosecutors and since the RICO cases are an area of special training, not all federal prosecutors can try to cases (Juvenile Justice Reform Initiatives in the States 1994-1996). The U.S. Attorney's office is working on trying to solve this issue by bringing in more RICO knowledable lawyers but this is an issue that can not be fixed overnight (Juvenile Justice Reform Initiatives in the States 1994-1996).
Initiative Weaknesses - Cities
The weaknesses of the initiative do not fall completely on the program though and can be traced to the cities themselves. Many cities, including Fort Wayne, did not even acknowledge the fact that they had a gang problem or are too embarrassed to report proper statistics on their gang problem (Organ, 2009). Some cities that enacted a task force claim that the only reason they have one is to bring a FBI presence into the city or to scare future gangs away (Organ, 2009). If these cities keep their gang problem hidden or keep trying to reject the idea of street gangs within their cities, the initiative obviously can not work since city officials will keep refusing funding for the program because they see no serious threat.
Street gangs, even in small numbers, have always been around in urban areas but had not been seen as a problem until the 1970s. They quickly spread into suburban and rural areas where, in the 1990s, they also started be seen as a major threat to communities. Crime in all areas quickly started to increase and local law enforcement agencies could only take a reactive approach towards gang related violence. Once the federal government became aware of the growing problem, they came up with a solution that would combine the efforts of law enforcement agencies on all levels-the Safe Streets Violent Crime Initiative. From the start, the program has been successful in putting gang members behind bars, confiscating illegal narcotics and firearms, and seeing an improvement in communities. The program has also benefited the departments involved by giving them hands on training to equipment they would more than likely never have used due to funding issues and allowing for more manpower to be assigned to the war on gangs. Like most other programs, the Safe Streets Violent Crime Initiative has its weaknesses but the pros definitely out weigh the cons and with continued success hopefully more cities will agree on funding to initiate the program in their city.