Definitions of Gangs

What is a criminal street gang?  What is a prison gang?

Webster's Dictionary defines a gang as:

  • A group of persons working to unlawful or antisocial ends; for example, a band of antisocial adolescents or,

  • A group of persons having informal and close relations.

The  above definition obviously does not fit the definition needed to describe a street gang.

What is the definition of a criminal street gang or a gang member in your state?  There is no national criminal street gang definition.

Many states have passed gang-related legislation which, for the most part, includes a gang definition. Law enforcement entities in those states that have not passed legislation, also have many definitions for a gang. Each definition is designed to fit the desired requirements to identify gangs through federal or state statute or departmental policy.

Definitions run the risk of initiating a wave of anti-gang hysteria and the ensuing array of ineffective and costly anti-gang activities: namely, curfews and sweeps --the unfortunate, but prevailing strategies currently used in many parts of the country.

Without some kind of working definition, another commonly occurring predicament soon surfaces. Generalizations are applied to white supremacy groups, bikers, Asian gangs, African American and Latino gangs alike when in reality there are clearly discernable differences among these groups (Bureau of Justice. Assistance-Program 2, 14,30- l991).

Criminal Street Gang Definition

A generic definition that may serve as a guideline for those states that do not have a criminal street gang definition is as follows:

A criminal street gang may be defined as a group of people who form an allegiance for a  common purpose, who engage in criminal activity, and who conform to one or more of the following traits.

1. share a common group name;
2. share common symbols, tattoos, or graffiti;
3. share a common style of dress;
4. frequently congregate upon, or lay claim to a geographic location; and,
5. associate together on a regular or continuous basis.

Gang Member Definition

The following may be considered in identifying a gang member:

Gang membership may involve very different levels of commitment and participation. The type of commitment and participation needs to be delineated to establish a level of membership for each identified participant. A person will be identified as a gang member if he or she meets two or more of the following criteria:

1.  An individual admits membership to a group which meets the criteria of a gang.
2.  A reliable informant identifies an individual as a gang member.
3.  An informant of previously untested reliability identifies an individual as a gang member and such identification is corroborated by independent information.
4.  An individual resides in or frequents a particular gang's area and adopts it style of dress, use of hand signs, symbols or tattoos and/or associates with known gang members.
5.  An individual has been arrested in the company of identified gang members for offenses which are consistent with gang activity.

Identifying a gang associate

Care should be taken when identifying someone as a gang associate.  In any area or neighborhood where gangs are present, most of the youths are "confined" to that area due to family hardships such as family economic problems.  A youth may have no desire to join a gang and doesn',t but many of his neighborhood friends, and possibly even family members, such as a brother,  may be a member.  Consequently the youth is surrounded by gang members - he is constantly with and among known gang members.  This scenario is played out over and over and youths can get caught up in the files as a gang associate, even though have no standing in the gang and  do nothing for the gang.

Using the above criteria, a gang associate, as an example,  may be identified as follows"

"Criminal gang associate" means a person who:

  1. Admits to criminal gang association; or
  2. Meets any single defining criterion for criminal gang membership described below who:
  3. Adopts the use of a hand sign identified as one used by a criminal gang

  4. Has a tattoo identified as one used by a criminal gang.

  5. Associates with one or more known criminal gang members.

  6. Is identified as a gang associate by physical evidence.

  7. Has been observed in the company of one or more known criminal gang members four or more times.

The following are examples of state gang statutes:

A criminal street gang in Arizona is defined as:

an ongoing formal or informal association of persons whose members or associates individually or collectively engage in the commission, attempted commission, facilitation or solicitation of any felony act and who has at least one individual who is a criminal street gang member.

In Delaware a criminal street gang means:

Any ongoing organization, association, or group of 3 or more persons, whether formal or informal, having as one of its primary activities the commission of one or more of the criminal acts enumerated in Subdivision (a)(2) of this section, having a common name or common identifying sign or symbol, and whose members individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity.

And in Florida a criminal street gang is:

A formal or informal ongoing organization, association, or group that has as one of its primary activities the commission of criminal or delinquent acts, and that consists of three or more persons who have a common name or common identifying signs, colors, or symbols and have two or more members who, individually or collectively, engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal street gang activity.

The key to the any gang definition is the phrase, "engage in criminal activity" or other similar wording. There are many legitimate fraternal groups, boys and girls clubs, sports teams and other organizations that have a common name and who may wear a particular uniform or articles of clothing.

State of Georgia

The State of Georgia Street Gang Prevention and Terrorism Act has a very good definition of a "gang", in that it not only defines what a gang is, but also defines what a gang is not.  This is accomplished by adding the following language:

"Such term (definition of gang) shall not include three or more persons, associated in fact, whether formal or informal, who are not engaged in criminal gang activity."

The entire Georgia statute, along with the other state statutes, may be viewed below.

Security Threat Groups - STG

Many departments of corrections use the term "Security Threat Group" (STG) to classify some prison gangs within their individual departments. Prison gangs, like street gangs, thrive on publicity to intimidate and to enhance their power and reputation. The term STG directly relates to the security of institutional operations and is used to eliminate the recognition the gangs seek.

Security Threat Group Definition

A typical definition of a Security Threat Group might include the following:

          The (Name of the Department) Security Threat Group policy defines an STG as any formal or informal organization, association, or group of three (3) or more inmates that have a common name, and whose members or associates engage or have engaged in two (2) or more activities that include planning, organizing, threatening, financing, soliciting or committing unlawful acts or acts of misconduct classified as serious threats or potential threats to the safety and security of the public, the Department, employees, visitors and/or other inmates.

Hybrid Gangs

New youth gangs are formed almost daily throughout the country. Although many of these gangs call themselves the same names of the older, traditional gangs, they are in no way, representative of the original gang. These gangs are known as hybrid or copycat gangs.

While the predecessor gang may have been formed along race, ethnicity and cultural lines, the hybrid gang is usually a mixture of races and ethnicities. They may use colors from several gangs and may even use the colors of rival gangs. An example of this would be for a hybrid Crip set to use the color red instead of the traditional color of blue. They may also do the same with signs and symbols used in their graffiti and tattoos. Whereas the older, traditional gangs may have some semblance of leadership and/or codes of conduct, the hybrid gangs do not.

Law enforcement and those who provide information about gangs need to recognize that not all gangs wearing blue, or black are Crips or Gangster Disciples, nor are all gangs who wear red, affiliated with the Bloods.

We must all become aware of the differences of the gangs of today.

Criminal Street Gang Definitions - State by State

NEW = State and Federal Definitions of Gang Terms - PDF Format

NEW - State of Georgia 2007 Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act

NEW - State of South Carolina 2007 Criminal Gang Prevention Act




Robert Walker

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This page was last updated on 03/13/2014

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