Street gangs have a long history as part of the urban landscape in the United States. Today, most urban and many suburban and rural law enforcement agencies confront gang crimes directly or are addressing concerns about the imminent threat of gangs from residents and school personnel.
In recent decades individual law enforcement agencies have developed myriad programs and strategies to address gangs, often with the support of COPS and other federal agencies. Included below are some major publications that address prevention, intervention and enforcement regarding gangs. The listing highlights comprehensive, community policing approaches as well as publications that attempt to put the gang problem into quantitative perspective.
In the last decade, the media, the public and law enforcement agencies have cited "gang migration" as a growing trend. The perception of gang migration may stem not only from the spread of gangs into new territories, but may also from the popularization and allure of gang culture in popular culture.
Street gangs have traditionally been associated with inner-city neighborhoods. Many observers, including law enforcement practitioners and academics, cite as a growing trend the movement of gangs into suburban and rural neighborhoods. Factors contributing to this geographic expansion may include increased pressure by law enforcement operations in urban settings as well as the desire of gangs to expand their lucrative markets for drug and other illegal enterprises.
However, some observers assert that perceptions about the growth and spread of gangs may be exaggerated. Critics contend that much of the fear is misplaced and attributable to the influence of mass media. Popular movies, video games and music that venerate "gangsta" culture have reached beyond the inner cities to youth and young adults across mainstream society. This mainstreaming may be spawning gang imitators and "wannabes" that take on the trappings of gang membership but who are scarcely involved in the same levels of serious criminal behavior and sophisticated illegal enterprises as are hard-core gang members.
Whether the spread of gangs is a reflection of their evolving sophistication, an expression of popularized gang culture, or both, gangs have become a concern for a growing number of law enforcement agencies. Findings from the National Youth Gang Survey indicate that law enforcement respondents in 86 percent of larger cities; 50 percent of suburban counties; 35 percent of smaller cities; and 15 percent of rural counties reported experiencing gang problems in 2007.
Aside from the growth of gangs, other challenges exist for law enforcement. Gang culture and the organizational dynamics of gangs are in constant flux. Law enforcement agencies must remain flexible and adaptive in their responses to gangs.