Discovery Channel lies about the number of gangs in Oakland

By Matt O’Brien
Oakland Tribune
Posted: 09/18/2009 04:46:11 PM PDT
Updated: 09/18/2009 05:28:12 PM PDT

oakland-crime-reporting-snipOAKLAND — Marketed as a “powerful journey inside one of America’s most troubled cities,” a documentary appearing on the Discovery Channel this month makes a loaded claim about Oakland’s population.

“Here, almost 10,000 gang members rule with deadly force,” a narrator explains at the beginning of the two-hour program that aired Monday. “Recruiting teens, running drugs, selling guns and murdering on a whim.”

Local police brass say the figure is inaccurate. Movie producers have not said where they got the number.

But if the television program is correct, between 2 percent and 3 percent of Oaklanders are in gangs.

If all those gang members were, say, between the ages of 10 and 24, they would represent nearly 15 percent of young Oaklanders, according to the census.

And if all of the 10,000 gang members were male and in the 15 to 24 age bracket, they would represent 44 percent of Oakland’s young men.

The problem is that the figure is impossible to confirm, local police and researchers say, and unfairly blights an entire city.

“There’s definitely not 10,000 gang members in Oakland,” said Victor Rios, a former member of an Oakland youth gang who is now a UC Santa Barbara sociology professor studying them. “I lived on those streets, and I studied young people on those streets.”

Oakland police officers do keep track of gang-affiliated people by writing up field identification cards when they run into one, but
Officer Jeff Thomason, a police department spokesman, said he doubted that adding all those cards up would result in the figures cited in the documentary.

“Do we think it’s 10,000? No,” Thomason said. “We use our own internal tracking. But it’s not going to be over 1,000, for sure.”

A statewide criminal intelligence registry lists only 858 known Oakland gang members, which is what Thomason cites as the most verifiable number. Outside agencies, however, said that number could be low because Oakland police do not fully contribute to the state network.

“We use (the database) to solve the whodunits. It was never designed to collect statistics,” said Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Dennis Smiley, who helps manage the network. “The database is only as good as the data that’s put into it.”

And some departments such as Oakland, he said, don’t put as much data into it as others.

A federal report suggests there might be up to 10,000 gang members in the larger region, but that number includes gang members throughout all of Alameda County, not just in its biggest city. A map of California produced as part of the report by the National Gang Intelligence Center, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice, shows between 3,500 and 9,999 gang members in the county. About 25 percent of the county’s residents live in Oakland.

The Discovery Channel and the company that produced the film, part2 pictures, did not respond to phone calls and e-mails seeking comment on Thursday and Friday. A woman who answered the phone at the production company Friday said a producer was traveling and unable to be reached.

The first segment of the two-part program (which will finish Monday) mentions the 10,000 gang members several times but does not cite a source. The narrator also says the number of gang members has increased tenfold in a decade, and that youths are joining gangs at younger ages than before. Nearly all of them, said the narrator, are black or Latino. The second part of the program is scheduled to air on Monday night.

Those who have tried say efforts to count the number of people who belong to gangs can be difficult.

“Frankly, record keeping by police departments does not support accurate, right-down-to-the-last-gang-member estimates,” said John Moore, director of the National Youth Gang Center, which is also affiliated with the Department of Justice. “There’s no way to track them.”

Moore’s agency tries anyway, using estimates from about 2,500 of the nation’s 15,000 law enforcement agencies to guess how many gang members live in the United States. The most recent estimate was 788,000 gang members belonging to 27,000 gangs nationwide, he said.

The agency rarely releases city-specific figures because those numbers can be inaccurate and based on the subjective views of local officials.

“What is a gang member? We’ve struggled with that for years and years and years,” Moore said.

The Los Angeles Police Department keeps internal records of its gang estimates but stopped publicizing them in 2007 because of concerns about their accuracy.

The department estimated earlier this year that there are 44,000 gang members in the city of about 4 million, but those numbers — also based on field identification cards — probably duplicate people and are not scientific, a gang detective there said.

“The only way to determine the number of gang members in Los Angeles is to include them in a census,” said Detective Julie McAllister. And ultimately, she said, it’s gang crimes, not people who identify with a gang, that’s the more important statistic.

It is easy for cities to inflate subjective gang estimates when they want more federal money for police and deflate them to improve their reputation, said Rios, who was in a gang in the mid-1990s.

Rios, who has spent about five years studying Oakland gangs for a book due out next year, said his best guess for the Oakland gang population is 2,000.

“That includes all the kids who pick up a street name because they live there,” he said.

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