Series: NIJ Research in Brief
Published: September 1995
by Cheryl L. Maxson, Ph. D.
Issues and Findings
Discussed in this Brief: The results of a study to determine the level
of street gang involvement in drug sales arrests in two Los Angeles suburban
cities from 1989 to 1991. Results are compared with those from an earlier
study of gang involvement in cocaine sales based on arrest incidents in
south-central Los Angeles between 1983 and 1985. Police departments that
participated in this study also provide their views of the findings.
Key findings: The statistical connection between
street gangs, drug sales, and violence was smaller
than anticipated. Specific findings include the
o Gang members were arrested in 27 percent of 1,563
cocaine sale arrest incidents occurring between
1989 and 1991 in two Los Angeles suburban cities.
o Rock or crack forms of cocaine were more often
present in gang cases, but most aspects of cocaine
sales incidents (e.g., location, firearm presence,
and amount of cash) did not vary with gang
involvement. Cases with gang members were more
likely to include males, younger ages (by about 5
years), and blacks.
o Rates of gang involvement and gang-nongang
differences were very similar to those reported for
Los Angeles in 1985.
o The presence of identified gang members in arrest
incidents for sales other than cocaine was far
lower (less than 12 percent of 471 cases). No
differences were noted in the incident
characteristics of the two types of cases. Higher
percentages of Hispanics were arrested in other
drug cases compared with cocaine sale incidents,
but black suspects and younger people were more
common in gang cases.
o Lower than expected rates of gang involvement in
drug sales coupled with a lack of evidence of
special impacts associated with gang involvement
suggest a reconsideration of gang specialization in
narcotics enforcement. The exception may be in the
unusual case of the extremely involved drug-selling
street gang. Investigation of homicides and other
violent incidents may benefit more directly from
the expertise of law enforcement gang specialists.
Target audience: Law enforcement, prosecution,
probation, city government officials, social
service agency practitioners, and researchers.
The degree to which street gang involvement in drug distribution presents special and substantial difficulties to law enforcement is a matter of some debate in police and academic circles. Most of the literature emanating from law enforcement sources suggests a strong connection. Gangs are often portrayed as organized entrepreneurs battling traditional drug distributors for dominance of a lucrative business, and increased violence is often attributed to gang involvement in the drug trade.
The academic literature reflects more diversity regarding the scope
and nature of the connection between gangs and drug sales. Some authors
have reported well-organized drug distribution operations by gangs in California
and the Midwest. Other researchers have disputed this characterization
of highly entrepreneurial gangs. A
study of gangs in three U.S. cities suggested the causal independence of gangs, drug sales, and violence--some gangs were involved in drug sales while others were not, and some gangs were violent while others were not. Interviews with gang members in five recent studies have yielded widely varying reported rates of drug sales involvement--the lowest reported rate was 30 percent, and the highest reported rate was 95 percent. Perceptions of a close relationship between gangs, drug sales, and homicides have been challenged by recent
studies in Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles.
The researchers in this study sought to examine this relationship in
two suburban cities near Los
Angeles: Pomona and Pasadena. This Research in Brief offers an overview of the context for this
project, explains the study's methodology, presents an analysis of the key findings, and concludes with
a discussion of policy implications.
The context: Los Angeles street gangs and drugs
The emergence of "rock" or "crack" cocaine in Los Angeles in the early
1980's generated researchers'
interest because, almost immediately, police and media reports linked gangs to crack distribution. In an earlier study, law enforcement arrest, investigation, and gang records were used to investigate the magnitude and nature of gang involvement in cocaine sales arrest incidents in south-central Los Angeles between 1983 and 1985. Despite a dramatic increase in gang-involved cocaine sales (from 9 percent in 1983 to almost 25 percent in 1985), the police recorded no evidence of gang domination of street-level or midlevel sales. The connection between street gangs, drug sales, and violence appeared to have been overstated by media reports.
The incident and drug features of these cases were quite similar regardless
of gang member participation. On the other hand, the participant characteristics
displayed marked contrasts between the two groups of cases. These differences
mirrored those emerging from prior studies of gang and nongang violent
incidents in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Drug sales involving gang members
had greater numbers of younger (by about 5 years),
male, and black participants than cases not involving gang members. These data provided no evidence of organized gang incursions into the drug market, and predictions of increased violence or firearm presence in gang cases were not supported.
By the mid- to late-1980's, crack--often reported to be tied to gangs--had appeared in most major cities across the Nation. Also during this period and into the early 1990's, hundreds of midsized and smaller cities and towns experienced gang problems for the first time. Law enforcement informants in the majority of these newer, smaller gang cities reported moderate to heavy gang involvement in drug distribution.
The current study was initiated to assess the generalizability of the
Los Angeles findings to smaller suburban cities and to investigate whether
sales incidents involving drugs other than cocaine might display different
patterns. The research objectives were as follows:
o Assess the magnitude of gang involvement in
cocaine and other drug sales in two suburban
o Compare the characteristics of drug sale
incidents involving gangs with drug sale incidents
not involving gangs.
o Assess the generalizability of findings on
cocaine to other drugs and from urban to more
o Translate the implications of the research
findings for law enforcement strategies.
Homicide studies, personal interviews, questionnaires, and/or participant observations of gang members were the primary research methods used in the studies cited earlier. A distinguishing feature of the research described here was the use of law enforcement records to assess links between gangs, drugs, and violence in areas haracterized by high incidence of both gang and drug sales activity.
Site selection. Pasadena and Pomona were selected as study sites for
several reasons. Both are midsized suburban cities (population about 130,000
each). Pasadena is immediately adjacent to the city of Los Angeles; Pomona
lies 25 miles to the east but is still well within the metropolitan area.
Both cities have longstanding gang problems, and enforcement personnel
have reported very active involvement of both black and Hispanic gang members
in the distribution of a variety of drugs. Finally, Pasadena and Pomona
have well-developed gang units
and have maintained gang membership files for several years.
How do Pasadena and Pomona compare with other U.S. gang cities? Pasadena
reported more gangs thanPomona, and both cities have more gang members
and more gang homicides than other midsized cities.
Spanning all regions of the country, the comparison group included such cities as Hartford, Connecticut;
Jersey City, New Jersey; Flint, Michigan; Kansas City, Kansas; Lubbock, Texas; Hayward, California;
and Las Vegas, Nevada.
Three-fourths of the comparison cities had at least 40 percent Hispanic gang members, and about one-third reported a comparable percentage of black gang members. Generally, the Pasadena and Pomona figures fall into the upper midrange compared with these other cities but indicate a greater representation of black gang members. Despite their proximity to Los Angeles, the two study sites are not unique; the research findings are relevant to a number of cities across the country.
Drug sale definitions. Drug sale incidents were defined by the arrest of at least one suspect for a drug sales offense. Computer-generated lists of all suspects arrested for these offenses between 1989 and 1991, along with co-arrestees charged with incident-related offenses, formed the population of drug sales cases. Generally, a sales "incident" was defined by the assignment of a departmental identification number to that case. Incidents were categorized as cocaine involved or not, and cases including the sales of other drugs in addition to cocaine were placed into the cocaine group.
Gang definitions. Gang cases were defined by the arrest of at least one identified gang member in the drug sale incident. The gang membership files maintained by the gang unit in each department constituted the major source of gang case identifications. The gang units in both cities have maintained their gang files for several years. The criteria for inclusion in a gang membership file for Pomona and Pasadena were approximately the same as the criteria of the other Southern California cities with which the researchers are familiar. They included self-acknowledgment; identification by a known, reliable informant; and corroboration of identification by newer, less known informants. In both Pomona and Pasadena, gang member identifications from patrol or detective sections were reviewed and verified by gang unit personnel. Neither unit had purged its file of inactive gang members.
Gang member identification. In Pomona, an alphabetically ordered printout
of about 1,800 entries from the automated gang file facilitated the matching
process. Full name, birth date, moniker, and gang name were included. Each
name on the arrestee list was checked against the gang roster. Alternative
spelling variations (e.g., common misspellings, nicknames, and slight phonetic
variations), different name ordering (e.g., a first
name that could plausibly be a last name), and any aliases provided on the arrest list were explored. Only minor variations in names or birth dates were allowed, except where there was a clear match on a very unusual name.
The Pasadena gang files were not automated. Membership cards were held
in 4 separate boxes or
card file drawers: boxes for the 2 major black gang groupings in the Los Angeles area--the Crips and
the Bloods--contained about 300 and 700 cards, respectively; the Hispanic gang box held about 700 cards separated into 7 major gang sections; and a box marked "miscellaneous" held about 275 cards (mostly with older dates of entry). Except for the multiple sources investigated, the matching procedures mirrored those used in Pomona.
Selection of samples. This initial check of drug arrestee names in the
gang files yielded four groups of cases for sampling: gang and nongang,
cocaine and noncocaine. Up to 100 cases in each group were sampled randomly
from the lists constructed for each city. Whenever a case was dropped during
collection, it was replaced by
random selection from the appropriate nonsampled pool. New gang information that surfaced in the drug incident case file material required transfers from nongang to gang status. A clear attribution of gang membership in the case material was consideredvalid even if the suspect did not appear in the gang files. Also, new arrestees not on the original arrest list and new aliases that emerged during the case review were checked against the gang rosters. Occasionally, drug information that surfaced in the case file required reclassification (e.g., the drug "resembled" cocaine but tested positive for heroin); these transfers were accommodated until the sample goals of 100 cases per group were fulfilled; 14 eligible cases were dropped because the accurate gang or drug information emerged too late to allow inclusion of the case in the correct sampling pool.
Collection and coding procedures. Teams of students, trained and supervised
by a field coordinator well versed in the ambiguities of law enforcement
case file material, extracted information relevant to the incident, police
activity, drug sales activity, and participants. The collection form was pretested, and the case file content was reviewed to ensure that the desired information was available in both departments.
As a reliability check, a random sample of 10 percent of the collected cases was drawn for duplicate coding. The overall discrepancy rate was low (2 percent for case level variables, 1 percent for participant variables). The correspondence between the two coding passes was at least 91 percent for all variables.
Any multisite study raises concern regarding interdepartmental differences:
Variations in gang rostering rocedures, the arrest logs from which samples
were identified, and the contents of case material could have introduced
differences between the two cities. Differences in officer levels and deployment,
narcotics nforcement and arrest policies, and recording practices could
have influenced the degree to which the arrests
reflected the actual level of sales activity in these two cities. Therefore, interviews with key informants and observations in the stations during the data collection period examined quality differences regarding the manner in which gang and nongang sales activities were handled. Except for the differences in the gang file structures
reported earlier, no significant variations between the two departments' narcotic or gang enforcement activities were noted. In both departments, street narcotic enforcement operations involved teams of gang, narcotic, and patrol officers conducting undercover buys and sweeps of visible street-level dealers and well-known sales locations. Gang and nongang cases from both drug groups were combined (328 from Pasadena and 326 from Pomona) to assess the quantitative differences between the two departments.
Very few significant differences (p<0.05) between the two cities
emerged in this analysis. Indications of gang membership in the case files
and the number of gang members per case were at similar levels. No location
differences (i.e., dwelling versus open-access setting) were noted, but
the presence of firearms was slightly higher in Pomona (14 percent versus
5 percent). Amounts of each type of drug taken into evidence were similar,
but Pomona incidents were slightly more likely to involve marijuana sale
charges (36 percent versus
28 percent) and slightly less likely to involve heroin (5 percent versus 9 percent). The total number of suspects per case and their mean ages did not differ, but Pomona incidents had proportionally more Hispanics (41 versus 16 percent) and fewer blacks (52 versus 78 percent). Pomona cases yielded slightly higher proportions of male suspects (86 versus 82 percent).
Most of these differences are quite small, and those reaching statistical significance are few. The data from the two cities are combined for all subsequent analyses.
Drug sale incidents
The number of drug sale incidents reflects substantial drug sale activity
in both cities. However, as noted earlier, the magnitude of any arrest
figures (or in this study, arrest incidents) is always heavily influenced
Drug sale incidents involving cocaine were shown to be far more numerous than those not involving cocaine, particularly in Pasadena. Sales of other drugs in Pomona outnumbered those in Pasadena.
Recalling the definition of gang cases as including at least one identified
gang member arrested in a sales incident, gang involvement in the 1,563
cocaine sales incidents was significant but not overwhelming. The proportion
of cases with gang members in Pasadena was about 30 percent (279 of 916
cases), and the
proportion in Pomona was slightly higher than 21 percent (139 of 647 cases).
The combined rate, 26.7 percent, indicates substantial gang involvement,
yet cocaine distribution was hardly dominated by gangs in these two suburban
cities. A "one-out-of-four" figure would represent significant gang presence
in drug sales for many jurisdictions yet was much lower than estimates
offered by the law enforcement
officials involved with this study prior to data collection. "Almost all" and "upward of 90 percent" were not uncommon estimates from both gang and narcotics experts in Los Angeles. Pasadena and Pomona estimates were more accurate but still ranged from about 30 to 50 percent. It should also be noted that these gang member arrestees might have been individual entrepreneurs. Involvement of the gang might have been minimal.
Scope of gang involvement. This combined rate is quite close to the figure of 25 percent reported for Los Angeles cocaine sales cases in 1985. Thus, the scope of gang involvement in Pasadena and Pomona did not seem to exceed that reported in south-central Los Angeles in the mid-1980's. Yet, these levels of gang involvement would be more than sufficient to concern law enforcement if gang presence were associated with special features of drug sales. For example, multiple drugs sold in larger amounts or a higher likelihood of firearm presence might suggest increasing law enforcement resources to target gang cocaine sellers.
The gang-nongang comparative data permitted the assessment of this issue.
The majority of sales
occurred on the street or in open access settings and rarely involved violence or even the presence of firearms. The rock or crack form was more prevalent than powdered cocaine. Small amounts were the norm, and sales of multiple drug types were uncommon. The majority of the incidents did not involve "multiple handlers"
(i.e., multiple participants engaged in different distribution roles).
Very few of the incident characteristics yielded statistically significant
differences. Rock or crack sales surfaced more often in gang cases, but
the drug amounts retrieved for evidence were quite similar and just slightly
more than 2 grams. The higher figures for cocaine amounts in any form were
attributable to the inclusion of cocaine powder; amounts retrieved in nongang
cases were almost double those retrieved in gang incidents. More cash
was taken into evidence in nongang cases, although this difference did not reach statistical significance. No differences emerged in the nature of the sales location (including knowledge by law enforcement of prior sales occurring at that site), violence associated with the drug transaction or arrest, or the potential for violence represented by firearms. There was no evidence that the cases with gang members were more serious than other
The pattern of similarity between gang and nongang incident descriptions
changes dramatically when
examining the participant characteristics. Most of the cocaine sale incidents involved male black offenders in their twenties. Although the total number of offenders per case was the same in the two groups, all the demographic descriptors showed marked differences. Cases of gang involvement indicated a greater likelihood of male, black, and younger suspects than cases without gang members. In general, females and Hispanics were not often engaged in cocaine sales in these two cities, but they were even less likely to be involved
in gang transactions. The pattern of participant demographic differences mirrors the pattern that emerged from other studies of gang and nongang homicides and other violent incidents. Participants in gang crimes tend to be
younger, male, and either black or Hispanic. The lack of differences in the cocaine sales incident descriptors suggests that gang involvement had only a negligible impact on the nature of these drug transactions. Gang presence was not associated with increased seriousness by any measure.
Examination of the earlier Los Angeles cocaine sales data yielded similar
patterns. A comparison of the outcomes of the statistical tests for gang
and nongang distinctions on an array of variables yielded the following
Location: no difference, both studies
Firearms: no difference, both studies
Cash taken: no difference,
Pasadena; higher in Los Angeles gang cases
Rock present: gang higher, both studies
Rock amount: no difference, both
Other drugs present: no difference, both studies
Fortifications: no difference, both studies
Multiple handlers: no difference, Pomona and
Pasadena; higher in Los Angeles gang cases
Number of suspects: no difference, Pomona and
Pasadena; higher in Los Angeles gang cases
Proportion male: gang higher in both studies
Proportion black: gang higher in both studies
Proportion Hispanic: gang lower in both studies
Age: gang lower in both studies
The differences observed regarding whether cash was taken into evidence in the Los Angeles cases did not emerge in the current study. The higher number of offenders in gang cases in the first project, and the associated greater likelihood of multiple offenders, did not distinguish gang and nongang incidents in the suburban cities. However, these are rather minor differences within the overall context of similarity between the two time periods and locations.
Moreover, the general nature of cocaine sales incidents appears to be
remarkably stable across time and city. Characteristically, these incidents
have involved street sales of relatively small amounts of the rock or crack
form of cocaine. The majority of these drug sellers have been male, black,
and in their twenties. Very few cidents of violence were recorded
in either time period, but the more recent cases were less likely to involve
firearms. Firearm presence was recorded in about one-fourth of the 1984-85 incidents but displayed a decreasing pattern of gun presence over time. A lower rate of about 1 in 10 incidents was observed in Pasadena and Pomona.
Noncocaine drug sales
The design of this study permitted an examination of the magnitude and
characteristics of gang
involvement in sales of drugs other than cocaine. Law enforcement informants reported that gangs were
prominent in the distribution of marijuana, heroin, and PCP, although less so than in the distribution of cocaine. A higher representation of Hispanic gang members in the sale of these other drugs was anticipated.
The approach to identifying gang-involved sales of other drugs and the procedures for collecting data paralleled those adopted for cocaine cases. The level of gang involvement in the 471 noncocaine sales incidents was 11.5 percent, much lower than in cocaine cases. Notable differences between the two cities were observed.
The total volume of other drug sales activity was almost three times
higher in Pomona (342 incidents
in Pomona versus 129 incidents in Pasadena), but the number of cases with gang involvement was
nearly identical (26 in Pomona versus 28 in Pasadena). Thus, the percentage of gang involvement was three times higher in Pasadena (22 percent) than in Pomona (8 percent). Although the total of nearly 500 arrest incidents indicated considerable sales activity (particularly in Pomona), the rate of gang involvement does not warrant particular concern about gang dealers.
The combined total of just more than 50 gang cases provided an upper limit for the gang noncocaine collection sample; 200 nongang cases were sampled for collection of the incident and participant descriptors from the case file materials.
Even fewer gang-nongang differences emerged in the noncocaine sales
cases. No significant differences were observed in incident characteristics,
and only the proportion of black suspects and mean age distinguished the
participants in gang and nongang events (data not presented). The proportion
of lack and Hispanic offenders was more evenly distributed than in cocaine
cases; in other drug sales, gang involvement was associated with a
slightly higher proportion of blacks (48 percent) than was nongang involvement (31 percent). Thus, gang cases were about equally likely to involve blacks and Hispanics; nongang sales offenders were more often Hispanic. The pattern of offender ages was similar to that observed in the cocaine
Drug type comparison. The lack of distinction between cocaine sales
cases with and without gang involvement was reflected in noncocaine incidents
as well. Gang and nongang cases were combined to test for significant differences
between the two drug groups, and few distinctions emerged. Cocaine events
were less likely to have cash taken into evidence (52 percent of cases
versus 62 percent of the noncocaine incidents), but differences in cash
amounts did not reach statistically significant levels. The average number
of offenders wasslightly higher for cocaine sales (1.77 versus 1.52), and
there was increased likelihood of "multiple handlers" (22 percent in cocaine
incidents versus 9 percent in other drug cases). The proportion of gang
offenders per incident was
also higher (39 versus 17 percent).
Perhaps the most interesting distinction between the two drug groups is the ethnic pattern noted above; Hispanics were more involved in the sale of drugs other than cocaine. However, this difference did not appear to affect the character of drug sales activity generally, nor did it seem to introduce differences dependent on whether the sales-involved Hispanics were gang members.
Distribution of drug arrestees within gangs. The case material was inadequate for empirical analyses of "drug gangs." Typical street gang structures are not supportive of organized drug distribution, but the emergence of drug-selling cliques within typically offense-diversified street gangs is quite plausible. Ethnographic methods are more appropriate to this research question; law enforcement records have limited utility in addressing this issue.
The written narratives in the arrest investigation files did not yield
descriptions of recurrent
drug-selling groups within gangs, nor did they address the organization of drug distribution within a street gang context. In fact, gang information within the case material was limited to occasional references to membership or to the frequent drug sales activities among certain street gangs. Although some drug dealers were arrested for
more than one sales incident over the 3-year time period, no clear gang pattern among these repeat offenders was discernible.
The gang names of the drug arrestees were tallied for both cities. In Pomona, 15 separate gang names were noted among 113 offenders. Members in nine gangs had three or fewer arrests, suggesting that most Pomona gangs had very limited involvement in drug sales. On the other hand, 1 gang generated 45 arrests, and 2 others generated about 15 arrests each. Thus, about 70 percent of the gang-named drug offenders were affiliated with just three gangs. Two gang members from the most active gang were arrested together in only four incidents. The data available do not address the role that the gang played in these drug transactions. It is not clear whether the offenders were individual entrepreneurs working in several small groups or were concentrated within one or two cliques; ethnographic methods would be required to investigate relationship patterns among drug sellers within this high-volume gang.
This pattern of concentration emerged even more dramatically in Pasadena
where 18 gang names were recorded for 132 gang suspects. Only 2 gangs generated
more than a handful of arrests, but 1 of these yielded 91 arrests; only
9 incidents involved the arrests of 2 members of this gang together. The
gang members arrested for drug sales during this period represented a minority
of gang membership, even among the high-volume gangs. There was no evidence
of widespread involvement by the membership of either gang and, thus, neither
gang can be characterized as a drug gang. The majority of gangs in both
cities yielded very few arrests for drug sales during this period. On the
other hand, just a few gangs were responsible for most of the gang-involved
drug sales in these cities. Although these gangs were logical targets for
collaboration between gang and narcotic units, it should be noted that
the role of the gang per se in drug sales operations is unclear and requires
Conclusions and policy implications
Relying on law enforcement arrest records and gang membership files
placed some limits on this investigation of gang involvement in drug sales.
Few cities would claim that their gang files accurately represent all gang
members within their cities. Many gang members fail to come to the attention
of police, and some individuals with only marginal or transitory involvement
inevitably escape identification through even the most
rigorous gang designation procedures. Moreover, drug sales arrests reflect drug enforcement activity (e.g., departmental allocation ofresources and officer discretion) as well as the level and visibility of drug sales activity. Many, perhaps most, drug transactions are not detected bypolice.
The data obtained from law enforcement gang files and arrest records
were used to empirically assess the views, held by law enforcement and
communicated to the public through the media, of the scope and
nature of gang involvement in drug sales. These data described the proportion of drug sales resulting in an arrest that involved identified gang members; other sales transactions, and gang members unrecognized by police, ere not included. Moreover, this study did not directly address the question of what proportion of all gang members
engaged in drug sales. Nevertheless, several conclusions can be derived from these data.
Gang member presence in drug distribution in these two smaller cities can be characterized as substantial but not overwhelming. Rates of involvement in cocaine sales were of sufficient levels to raise some concern for law enforcement, yet hardly sufficient to cause alarm. The even lower rate of gang presence in transactions involving rugs other than cocaine required little specialized attention by law enforcement.
The degree to which these levels resemble the relative rates of gang
involvement in other types of offenses might be instructive. For example,
in 1994, gang members were suspects or victims in about 40 percent of all
omicides in Los Angeles County. Figures for other offenses were not available,
but levels of gang involvement in
burglary, vehicle theft, or assault might well have equaled or exceeded the rates found in cocaine sales incidents, particularly in areas with high gang activity.
The data did not support an assessment of whether gang members were involved in individual entrepreneurial activities or drug sales directly related to gang functions. However, the majority of gangs contributed very few arrests; in both cities, significant sales activity was associated with just one gang. No evidence of widespread gang involvement in drug distribution was noted.
Furthermore, little evidence of special impacts associated with gang involvement in drug sales of any type was noted. Gang cases were not more serious. Gang cocaine sales involved more young, black males in transactions that more often included crack rather than the powdered form. These gender differences should allay a growing concern about increased involvement of female gang members. Drug distribution has been overwhelmingly a male enterprise and particularly so in gang cases. Increased likelihood of black and younger offenders has also characterized sales of other drugs by gang members, and Hispanics have been more often involved in sales of drugs other than cocaine. No policy implications based on these differences would appear to be appropriate because there is little that is unique in the gang drug sale settings. The finding that most gangs have contributed few arrests for drug sales suggests that police gang experts should focus their attention on other forms of illegal activity.
In fact, the clearest policy implication emerging from this study is the suggestion for narcotics enforcement to move away from gang specialization. The exception may lie in the unusual case of a street gang extremely involved in drug-selling. Here, intelligence-building and sharing between gang and narcotics units may be beneficial. Colla-boration in street operations and investigations might also be productive, but caution should be exercised that targeted activities to suppress gangs do not inadvertently build gang cohesion.
Social agency practitioners, particularly those engaged in gang-targeted programs, should be wary about assuming strong ties between gang clients and drug sales. This study indicated that many gang members did not sell drugs, and few were engaged in highly lucrative drug distribution networks. By extension, discouraging reports of job training programs being in competition with vast amounts of drug money are probably exaggerations.
Well-conceived gang prevention and intervention programs should be supported.
Finally, the findings from the Los Angeles cocaine sales were substantially
replicated in two smaller suburban cities, Pasadena and Pomona. Earlier,
the resemblance between Pasadena and Pomona and several
dozen midsized cities with longstanding gang problems was noted. About 60 percent of the 37 comparison cities reported that local black gang members were heavily involved in drug distribution, most frequently crack cocaine. The figures for Hispanic gang members were somewhat lower yet still substantial. Future research might assess these estimates with methods similar to those used in this study, particularly in cities outside the Los
Angeles area. Law enforcement gang experts in these cities may be overestimating the scope of the problem, as did many in the Los Angeles area. Regardless of the magnitude of gang involvement, this study showed that the rates of gang involvement in drug cases were lower than expected, and the impact of this involvement was not
significant. Therefore, the study suggests that narcotics enforcement operations would benefit little from street gang expertise.
1. Skolnick, J.H., The social structure of street
drug dealing. American Journal of Police,
9(1990):1-41; Taylor, C.S., Dangerous Society. East
Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1989;
and Padilla, F., The Gang as an American
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2. Waldorf, D., and Lauderback, D., Gang drug sales
in San Francisco: Organized or freelance? Alameda,
CA: Institute for Scientific Analysis, 1993;
Quicker, J.C., Galeai, Y.N., and Batani-Khalfani,
A., Bootstrap or noose: Drugs in South Central Los
Angeles. Draft report to the Social Science
Research Council, 1991, cited with permission of
the authors; Decker, S., and Van Winkle, B.,
"Slingin" dope: The role of gangs and gang members
in drug sales. Justice Quarterly (1994):583-604;
and Hagedorn, J. Neighborhoods, markets, and gang
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3. Fagan, J., The social organization of drug use
and drug dealing among urban gangs. Criminology, 27
4. Esbenson, F.A. and Huizinga, D. Gangs, drugs,
and delinquency in a survey of urban youth.
Criminology, 31(1993):565-586; Pennell, S., Evans,
Elizabeth, Melton, Roni and Hinson, Samantha, Down
for the set: Defining and describing gangs in San
Diego. Report to the Administration of Children,
Youth and Families. San Diego: San Diego
Association of Governments, 1994; Spergel, I.A.,
personal communication regarding current study of
gang members in Chicago, September 1993; Decker, S.
and Van Winkle, B., op. cit., 1994; Hagedorn, J.
Homeboys, Dope Fiends, Legits and New Jacks.
Criminology, 32 (1994): 197-219. Note that with the
exception of the Esbenson and Huizinga work, all
studies employed selective samples of gang members.
5. Block, C.B., and Block, R. Street gang crime in
Chicago. NIJ Research in Brief, Washington, D.C.:
National Institute of Justice; Miller, W.B., memo
to James Howell reporting analysis of violent
crimes involving youth gangs in Boston, 1984-94, no
date; Maxson, C.L., Klein, M.W., and Cunningham,
L.C., Definitional variations affecting drug and
homicide issues. Los Angeles: University of
Southern California, 1992.
6. This research would not have been possible
without the cooperation and assistance from the
personnel of the Pasadena Police Department and the
Pomona Police Department. Permission was provided
by then Pomona Police Chief Lloyd Wood and then
Pasadena Police Chief Jerry Oliver and facilitated
by numerous people within the command structures.
Personnel within the records and computer divisions
provided the required case materials and work
space. The officers in both gang units responded to
questions and helped with the gang files. Access to
records was facilitated by a court order provided
by the Honorable Jaime Corral, who was at the time
Presiding Judge of Los Angeles Juvenile Court.
7. See Klein, M.W., and Maxson, C.L., Rock sales in
south Los Angeles. Sociology and Social Research,
69 (1985):561-65, for our first impressions based
largely on these sources.
8. Klein, M.W., Maxson, C.L., and Cunningham, L.C.,
Gang involvement in cocaine "rock" trafficking.
Final report to the National Institute of Justice.
Los Angeles, CA: University of Southern California,
1988; and Klein, M.W., Maxson, C.L., and
Cunningham, L.C., "Crack," street gangs, and
violence, Criminology, 29 (1991):623-50.
9. Maxson, C.L., Gordon, M., and Klein, M.W.,
Differences between gang and nongang homicide.
Criminology, 23 (1985):209-222; Klein, M.W.,
Maxson, C.L., and Gordon, M., Police response to
street gang violence: Improving the investigative
process. Report to the National Institute of
Justice. Los Angeles: University of Southern
California, 1987; Bailey, Gary, and Unnithan,
Prabha, Gang homicides in California. Paper
presented to the American Society of Criminology,
10. Maxson, C.L., and Klein, M.W., The scope of
street gang migration in the U.S.: An interim
report to survey participants. Los Angeles:
University of Southern California, 1993.
11. These data were gathered in 1992 in an
NIJ-funded study on gang migration (#91-IJ-CX-
K004). A survey of law enforcement in over 1,100
U.S. cities, including all cities with a population
of over 100,000, yielded almost 800 with local
street gangs. This comparison is limited to cities
of comparable size and relatively early onset
dates. The 37 cities constitute about one-third of
the gang cities in this population range. Only 10
similar-sized cities reported no gang problems.
12. Thirteen sections of California Health and
Safety codes pertain to illegal drug sales or
possession for sale. A list of these codes is
available from the author. Arrested individuals
were both minors and adults.
13. It is possible that gang members from other
cities were arrested for drug sales in Pasadena or
Pomona and yet did not appear in these two cities'
gang files. A check of a sample of 50 arrestees
from each department in the countywide GREAT system
maintained by the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department
suggested that this was not a concern. Only two of
the 100 arrests were in GREAT but not the station
gang files. Our thanks to Sgt. Wesley McBride,
LASD, for facilitating this procedure. A discussion
of the inadequacies and limitations of large
computerized files on gang membership can be found
in the recent GAO report included in the U.S. House
of Representatives Subcommittee on Civil and
Constitutional Rights of the Judiciary Committee
hearings on developing a national gang data base.
14. Group means can be inflated by a few extreme
cases. The frequency distributions for all
continuous variables were reviewed. A small number
of cases were identified, without regard to gang
status, as extremes and omitted from the
calculation of group means. This procedure had no
impact on the outcome of tests for statistical
significance. For example, one nongang case with 23
firearms, if included, would increase the mean
number to three guns. The mean amount of cash taken
in nongang incidents rises to $1,416 unless one
case is dropped from the analysis. Two cases (one
from each group) were deleted from the calculation
of the mean amount of rock, generating a decrease
of about one-half gram in each group. One incident
involved more than 10 kilograms of powdered cocaine
and four others had more than 1,000 grams. The
deletion of these five cases, all nongang,
dramatically lowered the group mean from 195 grams
to 7 grams. The difference between these two
figures serves as a reminder to be cautious about
the well-publicized, dramatic bust; the lower
figure is a much more accurate measure of the
"average" amount of cocaine in these cases. All
five large volume cases were the result of long
term investigations by the narcotics units in each
15. The group means for drug amounts were
calculated among cases with cocaine taken into
evidence. Thirty-nine of 400 cases had no cocaine
counted, usually because laboratory analysis of the
retrieved substance tested negative for cocaine or
other illegal drugs. Common bar soap was often used
to imitate cocaine rocks.
16. Maxson et al., op. cit., 1985; Klein et al.,
op. cit., 1991; Maxson, et al., op. cit., 1992.
17. These figures would increase only slightly had
the cases with multiple drug types including
cocaine been placed here rather than in the cocaine
18. Klein, M.W., The American Street Gang. New
York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.
19. Includes drug sales of all types; multiple
arrests of the same offender inflate this figure
somewhat. A specific gang name was not available
for about 10 percent of the gang offenders. Note
that the unit of analysis has shifted from incident
20. Provisional data provided by the Los Angeles
21. Taylor, C.S., Girls, Gangs, Women and Drugs.
East Lansing, MI: State University Press, 1993.
22. An anonymous review suggested this implication
from the studyfindings.
Pasadena, not unlike many urban and suburban communities in the mid-1960's, was confronted with an explosion in street corner drug trafficking activity. Transactions routinely involved very small amounts of drugs, generally for the personal use of the buyer. The problem became so chronic that some neighborhoods were literally overrun by street-level dealers.
Responding to that activity, the Pasadena Police Department began an aggressive "street buy" program in 1985, arresting more than 20 "sellers" per week for sales to officers.
Quickly, the sellers, many of whom were gang members/associates, began
"hiring" their drug customers to make the "hand to hand" transactions rather
than risk arrest themselves. Payment for the service was frequently a
small amount of drugs. Consequently, officers began to see a change in
the criminal histories of those arrested for sales of drugs. Most now had
backgrounds of robbery, burglary, and theft along with arrests for drug
possession for personal use. Clearly, they were not what we would consider to be drug dealers. In postarrest interviews, many confirmed that they were receiving drugs for their personal use in exchange for serving as a street corner courier. As an interesting side note, with many of the department's former robbery and burglary suspects then serving time for drug sales, the department's Part One offenses dropped from 11,430 in 1985 to
8,545 in 1987.
As a result, it becomes extremely difficult to draw a conclusion as
to the amount of gang influence in drug trafficking cases. In addition,
gang structures and their hierarchy are frequently informal. While
many gang members/associates are involved in drug sales, the proceeds from
those sales may solely benefit the individual seller. . . .Dr. Maxson put
it quite well in the report when she stated,". . . it should be noted that
of the gang per se in drug sales operations is unclear and requires more assessment."
Jerry A. Oliver
Wayne D. Hiltz, Lieutenant
Field Services Division
Pasadena, California, Police Department
The research findings affirmed, in many areas, the views and observations of Pomona Police Department gang and narcotic investigators. A survey of these investigators yields the following consensus profile relative to gang and drug trafficking activity in the City of Pomona:
o Drug usage, as opposed to drug sales, is a more dominate aspect of gang involvement.
o Investigators have reported the overwhelming drug of choice
among black gangs is rock cocaine.
Hispanic gang member involvement with drugs has typically consisted of heroin, PCP, marijuana, and
to a much lesser extent, rock and powdered cocaine.
o Both black and Hispanic gangs tend to define themselves and exert
their influence based on a
geographic identity. In addition to "turf" distinctions, black gangs still hold to either a "Crips" or "Bloods" affiliation as their primary allegiance.
o Investigators have not established a significant relationship between gang membership and drug
trafficking activity in the city. Gang member involvement in drug sales is present, but not to the degree that would suggest that it was an organized function of any particular gang. Investigators did report instances where gangs have coerced money from street drug dealers in exchange for permission to sell drugs in a neighborhood.
However, such instances have been rare and are attributed more to opportunity than to an organized gang activity.
In essence, the consensus view among investigators was that there may
be an increased propensity for
drug use and street level trafficking of drugs among gang members, but that these variables were not primarily dependent upon one another. The line of reasoning advanced by investigators was that drug traffickers above the street level depend on their anonymity to avoid arrest and would be less likely to establish close ties to individuals or groups such as gangs that attract high visibility.
Charles M. Heilman
Chief of Police
Pomona Police Department