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By John M. Carpino

The term "youth gang" is commonly used inter changeably with "street gang", referring to neighborhood or street-based youth gangs that meet "gang" criteria. 
Youth gang problems have grown significantly in the past 25 years and are not just a problem in major cities. The following is just a sample of warning signs.

* Graffiti          Unusual signs, symbols, or writing on walls, notebooks, class assignments, or water towers. Usually, the first visible sign of a gang presence will be graffiti. Graffiti is usually used to designate a "turf". Often times a rival gang will deface the graffiti to show opposition. Graffiti if left unchallenged will grow like a disease. Report any/all such graffiti to local authorities.

* Colors            Obvious or subtle colors of clothing, a particular clothing brand, hats, bandannas, jewelry, or haircuts. Clothing chosen by gang members may be based on their resemblance to colors, symbols and letters used by the gang. Colored laces in gym shoes are often used to represent gang colors. If in doubt check with your local law enforcement agency to determine what gangs are known to be in your neighborhood.

* Tattoos          Symbols on the body of gang members. A custom tattoo may be used to determine gang affiliation. If your child has a tattoo that leads you to believe he/she may be a member of a youth/street gang, its time to take action.

* Hand signs     Unusual hand signals or handshakes. The use of hand signs by gang members is an important form of nonverbal communication that is prevalent throughout the gang community. A gang member on his own turf will challenge another gang member, by "flagging" the unknown with his gang's hand sign, in effect asking the unknown to identify himself.

* Behavior         Sudden changes in behavior or secret meetings. Youths without proper parental control will reach out to become a member of a youth/street gang in order to feel part of a family.

Determining a particular individual's gang involvement is as difficult as identifying true youth gangs. In many cases, a youth may associate occasionally with a gang, participate occasionally in the gang activities, or simply desire membership without actually being a member. Many youth leave gangs by drifting out, gradually dissociating themselves. Not always an easy task.

Both denial of gang problems and over reaction to them are detrimental to the development of effective community responses to gangs. The police can't be expected to assume sole responsibility for youth gang problems. Community collaboration is essential for long-term success. Programs that incorporate prevention, intervention, and enforcement action by the police are most likely to be successful. You are the community and you must stand up and get involved, for the police to be able to assist you in combating a youth/street gang in your neighborhood. Don't think you can move away from the problem!

SafetyCops say if it looks like a gang-sounds like a gang-acts like a gang, its a GANG. To find out more about a problem in your neighborhood call your local law enforcement agency and ask to speak with the youth/juvenile division or gang unit.


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