Dr. Pyrooz provides an overview of his recent book and discusses the prevalence and evolution of gangs in the United States. He also answers our questions on whether gangs contribute to the increasing homicide numbers, and they interact with ideological groups, especially with extremist far-right groups. Finally, he concludes with the evidence-based best practices and what the government should do to address gang problems.
Suat Cubukcu: What motivated you to write your recent book, On Gangs? What makes your book special?
David Pyrooz: I think we get the award for the shortest title of a book with two words in it. But you know there's a little bit of history there that has to be recognized, and something that we did try to recognize at the beginning of the book, which tells you a bit of the motivation and some of the things that we think are unique about it. So, for one, you know, there was a bit of a history with you know it's like a continuance of Confronting Gangs: Crime and Community. And Confronting Gangs was published originally in 1998, and I mean, you know, I was still in high school when David Curry and Scott Decker wrote that book. And they wrote a second edition in 2003.
By the time I went to Arizona State University and went to graduate school, Scott and I had started collaborating on several articles. I had the chance to meet David Curry a few times in St. Louis, and we elected on writing that third edition of Confronting Gangs. And David Curry passed away in 2015, and we wanted to write essentially a fourth edition. And, and so we went to Oxford University Press, who published the third edition, and they said they weren't interested in a fourth one, so we thought you know we got to rethink this a bit, and we did, and we reached out to James Densley. And he joined the authorship team, we reached out to Temple University Press, and they were interested in, you know, a new book.
So, there are some connections to Confronting Gangs, but it's different. I mean, James brings a different viewpoint he's you know, an Oxford sociologist. He worked with Diego Gambetta, Federico Varese, and Heather Hamill, so he thinks about issues a little bit differently than how Scott does and how I do. So, there was that history to it, and you know, we also have to recognize the literature changed so much from 2014 when Confronting Gangs was published now to 2022, and so the way we viewed it was there was a need for like these authoritative, comprehensive books. So, like the way that you know the literature looks is, you know, there are some books that are more on the critical criminology, sociology side. There are some books that only focus on the United States or view gangs more like organized crime groups or more policy-practice oriented books. And we wanted something a little bit different, a little bit more balanced, fair-minded, integrative is how we thought about it. And we also really wanted to be able to weave in first-hand accounts; I mean we've done a lot of fieldwork a lot of interviews over the years, and we wanted those interviews and those quotations to be present across the 14 chapters of the book. So, the way we organized it was we have these core issues, the emerging issues, and then the responses, is how we thought this section should work. And you know part of this motivation is when it comes to the study of gangs, there's no journals devoted to this topic.
There are these divisions of societies or organizations, and, yet this literature has exploded. So, when we did this systematic review back in 2015, one of the things that we saw was 1993 was like this inflection point when the literature redirected, it was like a positive linear trend and then all of a sudden, in '93 it just redirected. And the cumulative body of the literature was doubling in the matter of a five-year period. It's like if you're a student in the early 90s, and you go to study gangs, you know there's you know 500 works when you get done with graduate school it's now at 1000 works.
And so, for science, to be able to advance projects like this are necessary, especially in the absence of institutions that are supporting them. And so, the way we see it is like the study of gangs is in some way looks like the gangs themselves they tend to be pretty decentralized, informal, functional as opposed to unpredictable. And so that's the way we approached this book and to try to bring some order to some of the chaos that was out there.
Suat Cubukcu: How extensive is the gang problem in the United States?
David Pyrooz: It sort of depends on whom you ask here because different people have different vantage points from which they do the problem, but it could be understood in a couple of different ways. And I think, from the outset and answering your question, I got to be clear here and say the population parameters have been defined almost exclusively by the criminal justice system. Now I get it in some ways that is fair; they are the ones who are dealing firsthand, you know, with gangs. But on the other hand, other people have viewpoints too, so we got to keep that in mind when we say how big is the gang problem.
So, we could talk about it in terms of, you know, the number of people who are involved in gangs, so there's the National Youth Gang Survey which existed from 1996 to 2012. And their most recent estimates from 2012 said it's about 850,000 people. You have the National Gang Intelligence Center report out of the US Department of Justice; they say it's, you know, over a million. There are also our correction systems, right? So our prison system says it's about 15% of the 1.5 million people in prisons are gang affiliates, and our jails are probably about 13% with some of the estimates.
In our juvenile systems, those estimates vary pretty widely, and our juvenile justice, our juvenile corrections, I should say, has changed remarkably over the years in the number of youths who are behind bars. But, just to be clear, you know the police data suggests that about a half of 1% of the US population is involved in gangs, so that's the people approach. There's also the group's approach, and the National Youth Gang Survey says it's about 30,000 gangs.
Now we should be a little bit skeptical of those numbers, of course, because they're going to be imprecise, the way that clicks are nested within groups, and we just can't be too certain on the number of gangs, but the 30,000 number is what people go with. And then you have the activities, in terms of the homicides, is like the most reliable valid statistic out there. And that's about 13% of homicides in the United States are related to gangs, and that's a big number. I mean, you think of mass shootings, you think of mass casualty events, domestic terrorism. Those numbers are right around 1% of the total homicides, and when you get into the urban areas, those numbers are much bigger. The only thing I would like to add to this, though, is when you ask this question of how expansive the problem is.
You know there are the people, there are the groups, there's the homicide, but there are other considerations that should be factored into this too. Things like fear or intimidation in communities, kids being willing to play at the park or parents taking their kids to the park, feeling safe after dark in neighborhoods. You also have to consider the resources steered away from other social problems. Particularly as local government, state government, the federal government, they've had to mount responses. The only other thing I'd add is you got to also take into consideration the benefits of gangs, which often go unacknowledged. And I am not trying to say that there is one thing that is more important than the other it's just to say that, in some ways, gangs bring order in places where people can't or won't.
They offer structure to children in ways, in places where it doesn't exist. So, offering some sort of like a semblance of institutions and order in communities too. And those are important things to consider, which I think people are taking into greater consideration today than they had said 20 years ago.
Suat Cubukcu: Is the gang problem changing over time? What has changed in the structure and operations of gangs during the last decades?
David Pyrooz: In the last decade, yes. Cause there's sort of like, before times because we've been studying gangs for over 100 years. I mean Henry Sheldon, when the first academic use of the word gang was used academically in 1898. You know, there is Puffer who wrote about the boy and his gang in 1912, and then you know Bogardus in 1926 in Los Angeles. And then, of course, Frederic Thrasher in 1927, and that's really when there was like the start of gang research, you know, social disorganization, the interstices of the city where these groups emerge and so on. So, I guess the point is to say, though, is that gangs have really been ebb and flow over the last century. And as in researcher's interest has also ebbed and flowed over the last century too, and that's a critical point that I'll return to in a second.
But I think what we don't want to start really a decade ago; we probably want to start five decades ago, really in the 1970s early 1970s. And that's where we really saw this emerging split between the gangs in the pre-war period, and then everything after that really, beginning in the deindustrialization era in the United States. And so, you know, the groups existed even in the 50s and 60s. You had Malcolm Klein doing his work in Los Angeles, Walter Miller in Boston, Jim Short in Chicago, Lewis Yablonsky in New York. And there was violence, there was some structured, you know, organized activities associated with them. But it was really beginning in the 1970s, but especially in the late 80s early 90s when gangs proliferated across the United States, so many of those people did surveys like of experts, typically law enforcement, but also social workers.
In 1960 it was about 50 cities reporting as having a gang problem, and by 1970 were about 100. By 1980 was like 170, and then by 1990, we are talking almost 800 cities. And by the turn of the century, we are not talking anymore about counts in numbers, so we have to shift to prevalence scores. Because 90% of cities with 100,000 or more people, at the turn of the century, reported having gang activity. By two-thirds of the cities that had a population between I think it was 40,000 or 100,000, right around there between those numbers, had gang activity in it. So that's one thing to consider, the other thing is, you know, we don't have the National Youth Gang Survey anymore, so if you asked me what happened in the last ten years, I'd say I don't know because the survey was defunded in 2012.
The only national numbers that could give you trends to rely upon is from the National Crime Victimization Survey, and they have the school crime supplement, and it is kids reporting, is there gang activity at your school? And those numbers continue to drop, they've almost dropped in half from about 20% of kids to I think it's like 12% of kids saying that there's gang activity in their schools; I believe that's through 2019 I can't recall if I saw in the 2020 numbers. So that is a downward trend, but we've also experienced in the last two years COVID, the pandemic, social unrest. And we're now seeing sort of this split in the use of the G-word in popular media. And, to be sure, we just don't know.
Now to go to your question about how these groups are structured and organized. You know, gangs, have always been pretty informal and diffuse; they just really haven't had a lot of like organization structure and like centralized structures. You know there's some really good work in Chicago by Roberto Aspholm who points to the fracturing or like the Balkanization of gangs in Chicago where you have seen sort of the splintering, especially among the black gangs from the sort of these big gang structure more towards, you know, corner groups, sets, and clicks, that are more dynamic and fluid. And you could think about more network terms than in terms of like, bounded ways of thinking about the groups. So that's important to consider, but again that's Chicago. Chicago has always been an outlier when it comes to the organizational structure of gangs. So, the groups are evolving, but if you asked me to go back 50 years and compare 2010 for today, I'd say, look, the soul of street gangs remains unchanged. Just the world around them that's changing would be my conclusion about it.
Suat Cubukcu: How has gang crimes, especially gang-related homicides, changed over time? And, to what extent do gang groups contribute to the increasing homicide numbers, especially in large metropolitan cities?
David Pyrooz: There was some recent research on this; George Tita, Jeff Burningham, and some others in Los Angeles found that gang crimes didn't increase proportionately or disproportionately. The gang crimes, so they all went up simultaneously in gangs, essentially the proportion of crimes that were gang-related was equal, even though the aggregate numbers of crimes increased. But we got to step back here for a second because when we're asking about gang crimes, especially about gang-related homicides and whether those changed over time, you know that we don't know. Especially at the national level, simply because we don't have data surveillance systems in place to gather such information. And in 2009, the FBI and the National Gang Intelligence Center put out this report, and one of the top-line takeaways was that gang members were responsible for 80% of crime. ABC News and all these other organizations sort of ran with that statistic, and let me be clear, and they said 80% of crime. I mean, come on, that doesn't make any sense if you're talking about one-half of 1% of the population. And you know, even 80% of violent crime would be pretty absurd. When you take out homicides, you are focused on aggravated assaults, robberies, sexual assaults, but of course, buried in that report was, you know, this notion that it was 80% in some locations, yet it sort of was a fixture in popular media.
Now there's just not a lot of research on how much crime or what proportion of crime, violent or otherwise, is gang-related or gang motivated. And that distinction is an important one because you could have gang-related crime that has nothing to do with the gang itself.
So, you could think of instances of, say, a domestic dispute where you have a perpetrator, a male gang member who assaults his wife, and that gets logged as gang-related because it involves a participant as either a perpetrator or a victim. Gang motivated, in contrast, has to do to further the interests of the gang, and that's even a pretty broad definition too. But usually has to do with instrumental activities, so you could think of, you know, drug dealing, protecting territory. There could even be symbolic aspects of it, dealing with disrespectful, you know, good crossing out of graffiti, walking into rival territory incidentally. Or, you know, yelling gang slogans or throwing up gang signs that could be to further the interests of the group. And there are about half as many gang-motivated homicides as gang-related homicides. Even though for the last 40 years, people have shown the characteristics, the situational factors of those events tend to be pretty similar, so it's important to distinguish between the two.
On the national level, there has been some research on how it's changed over time. It is just that stopped in 2012 because this comes down to a data problem, you know, with the elimination of the National Youth Gang Survey. We just can't tell how it shifted year-over-year. Now the good news is the National Institute of Justice they put out a call for funding in 2009, got it started in 2020. Rand Corporation is supposed to be delivered, you know, new data on basically the new equivalent of the National Youth Gang Survey. Still, it's just unclear when it's going to be reported. And the landscape has changed, I mean, it's just it's different the way police departments respond to gangs, and the way the public thinks about gangs, has evolved over time.
The other systems are the knack for the supplemental homicide report, but those numbers are just too untrustworthy; they just lacked good sound measurement properties. And just to give you a sense of this in Denver, for example, the supplemental homicide report says from 2000 to 2019, there were just about 1,000 homicides in Denver here. And 2.3% of them were either gangland killings or juvenile gang killings. Now, the National Youth Gang Survey in a three-year period said there were 26 gang-related homicides at the turn of the century in Denver. And the Denver Police Department says there were 26 homicides in or 16 homicides just in 2020 alone.
So, it's just to say that, and when I talked to street outreach workers, I mean they have attended so many gang-related homicides over the course of the last couple of years, it's just it defies belief, and you just can't put too much stock in the numbers.
The United States has been experiencing an increasing level of far-right extremism and violence in the last decade. There are several right-wing groups with diverse ideologies, such as White supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and anti-government groups.
Suat Cubukcu:The United States has been experiencing an increasing level of far-right extremism and violence in the last decade. There are several right-wing groups with diverse ideologies, such as White supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and anti-government groups. How are gang groups and ideological groups different from each other? Do gang groups interact with these ideological groups?
David Pyrooz: In terms of a direct interaction like coordinated activities, it's not so much. So when we did a collaboration, Scott Decker and I did a collaboration with the group START from the University of Maryland to study terrorism and responses to terrorism. They have this database called PIRUS (Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States) excellent database, open-source data, and they go through and comb through people's histories. They have some fascinating information. We found that about 6% of people in those databases had a prior history of gang involvement. So, in terms of direct connections, we just don't see it too much, and the examples that you see of street gangs interacting with domestic extremist groups for the purpose of carrying out terrorism is rare; it’s just like a couple of events get recycled over and over. Or, you see instances where groups like MS 13 when you know they get classified by the federal government, I mean not formally classified.
Terrorist language and extremist language gets used to describe some of their international activities, so there's that instance of it. But I think the more relevant question, as it relates to the far-right and other domestic extremist groups in the United States, has to do with the lens with which we view them. And Shannon Reid and Matthew Valasik, you know they, wrote this book called Alt-Right Gangs, and it makes a really strong case for viewing groups on the far-right, whether it's the neo-Nazis, the Proud Boys, or the Three Percenters, through this gang lens. And part of the benefit here, and they make a pretty strong case for it, but part of the reason for this is you know, there's all this theory, and there's this method that's been made available in the benefits from this hundred plus years of research, and to make these more explicit comparisons. Now I do think that there are a lot of similarities, but there are also differences too.
For one, we're talking about developmental differences when we focus on street gangs, your general, typical age of a street gang member is in their upper teens and their early 20s. So, we're talking about youthful people here, and some of them who aren't able to drive yet, who can't vote yet, or by alcohol yet. And, a lot of those developmental differences are responsible for bringing about, showing other differences to like the proportion who are married, who are working in full-time jobs, who have gone to college and so on.
And then the religious focus too, I mean it's just there's a lot of differences between gangs and extremist groups. So, if you think of the Venn diagram, there are certainly overlap in their comparisons, but those circles are also pretty different too. There was a recent study that just came out like two or three days ago by Scott Atran, which did a comparison in Spanish prisons on jihadists and the Latino prison gangs there, and what he found, or the research team found, was there was a strong psycho-social difference between them. And the jihadist groups had a much greater emphasis on like self-sacrifice, on behalf of the group, but also self-sacrifice on behalf of the group's values and the personal values, and you don't see that as much among gangs then you do among some of the domestic extremist groups. If there is, where I would expect the greatest overlap to be, is within the prison gangs, especially with what people call like the security threat groups.
Where they would have liked the stronger commitment to their values, you know they are more along the lines of organized crime groups than they are of your typical street gang. So, they sort of toe the line between some of the more extremist sides and what we find with your typical gang.
Suat Cubukcu: What can be done about gangs? What best practices can the government actually work on to prevent gang crime and gang violence in the United States?
David Pyrooz: Yeah, and so in this book, more so than in 2014, we have a bit more of a glass, half-full view of the problem, or at least of responding to gangs. Malcolm Klein and Cheryl Maxson their book from 2006, they did a really great review of policies, practices, and programs to respond to gangs. And ultimately, the main takeaway was everything was promising because it just hadn't been rigorously evaluated.
In the last 15 years, though, we have seen some more rigorous evaluations, and I think that's given us more of a promising take on it. And so, some things have improved, so for example on the prevention side; you know what can prevent people from getting involved in gangs. Well, you know there's now been good rigorous research on the efficacy of the Gang Resistance, Education and Training Program led by Finn Esbensen and his colleagues, which is shown, using randomized assignment of people, to getting the great curriculum versus not that they were less likely to join a gang in one year, and that over a four-year period less likely than the control group, those are pretty promising findings.
On the intervention side, there's clinical intervention now, for example, the group from Denise Gottfredson, Terry Thornberry, and Brook Kearley they've done evaluations, rigorous evaluations, of functional family therapy gangs, which is a clinical intervention which shows that it can reduce recidivism that was based on youth in Philadelphia. And that's actually an intervention that we're replicating here in Denver in Aurora over the next couple of years.
On the intervention side, there's also street mediation or violence interruption, and that's been central to public health approaches to respond to gang violence. We know gang violence is heavily retaliatory; there are norms of reciprocity that when one group strikes, another group is expected to strike back. If you can get mediators out there who can stop those conflicts from spiraling out of control, then it could reduce further tit-for-tat gang violence. And there's some good evidence from Jeff Burningham and his group from the Gang Reduction Youth Development out of the mayor's office in Los Angeles.
On the suppression side, that tends to be the most supported partly because that's where the resources are, so when it comes to the police-led interventions; you tend to find support for them. For example, with focus deterrence or group violence intervention with David Kennedy and his group, and Anthony Braga, civil gang injunctions, you know, filing civil lawsuits against gangs, and joining them in preventing them from associating in certain geographic locations. John McDonald and his group have found some pretty promising evidence for violence reduction.
Some of those have to do with, you know, the legitimacy of law enforcement and criminal justice, some of it has to do with kicking the can down the road and ultimately formalizing gang structures in our prisons. Where are we lacking, though, and you know we are lacking in some places. Prisons, we don't know what works in prisons. There just hasn't been a lot of research about gang interventions in prison. Whether it's prevention, intervention, or just violence reduction, we simply don't know, partly because there hasn't been the research.
Legislation, gang legislation rolled out in 1998 in California with our Street Terrorism Enforcement Prevention Act. Malcolm Klein, in his book from 1995, has this really great quote where he says something like, my only wish is that competent research would have been done in conjunction with like the rollout of STEP (the Street Terrorism Enforcement Prevention Act). And he was spot on the right, you know, another 44 jurisdictions went and adopted gang legislation, anti-gang legislation. Almost always on the suppression side, does it work? We don't know because it's never been tested. So, we don't know if these policies and practices brought about with legislation, for one, if they've even been put into effect, or if they work.
We devoted an entire chapter to legislation in this book just because we think it's very important. So, at the end, when it comes to best practices, you know, we're interested in the group processes of a gang because the group processes are what provoke inner group and intergroup dynamics, they breed cohesion, and they breed consequences.
We are interested in balanced approaches that balance prevention, intervention, and suppression. We worry that suppression-heavy approaches can be consequential and, ultimately, even though it shows short-run benefits, they can have long-run consequences. We absolutely need evaluation; all of these interventions should be paired with evaluation. It doesn't have to be randomized controlled trials. It could be staggered rollouts, anything that would allow us to leverage, like exogenous variations, to be able to test for differences.
And ultimately, it comes down to people, places, or things, where your target and try to reduce the consequences of gang activity. And the final thing, and this is based especially on Scott Decker's observations over the last 40 years is, even the best intention programs can fail, which is some of the things that they observed in St. Louis. They had this great quote, him and Dave Curry, "sometimes it's harder to change the behavior of organizations, that are tasked with responding to gangs than to change the behavior of the gang members, and the gangs themselves." Just because of how these groups are institutionalized, how they fight for money, and how these groups could conflict with each other in their interests.
Suat Cubukcu: David, thank you so much for the great conversation, and for your time and for your insights.
David Pyrooz: Absolutely, thank you for having me very much it's been a pleasure.
David Pyrooz is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder, where is also a faculty associate in the Prevention Science Program at the Institute of Behavioral Science. His areas of interest include gangs, crime trends, incarceration and reentry, and violence prevention. He is the author of Competing for Control: Gangs and the Social Order of Prisons (Cambridge Press) and On Gangs (Temple Press).