“As bad as 9/11 was, some good came out of it in that we work better together,” says Jim McDonnell, assistant chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.
McDonnell is not talking about terrorism. He’s talking about gangs and new multijurisdictional initiatives to combat them.
The restructuring of the FBI and the emphasis on information sharing that came in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the ensuing recommendations from the 9/11 Commission had a perhaps unanticipated boon for law enforcement efforts to rein in street gangs.
Over three days this past September, an FBI-led team of more than 40 law enforcement agencies executed 20 searches and arrested 350 gang members and drug felons as part of Operation Clean Sweep, which took place across a five-county area in northeastern Alabama.
Just a month earlier, a federal grand jury indicted 16 members of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club in Detroit on charges of racketeering, illegal drug distribution and gun violations. The Outlaws began as a street crew, but it has evolved into an international criminal organization, with members who commit murder, assault, narcotics distribution, and firearms and gambling offenses.
The Alabama and Michigan actions mark two high-profile payoffs for a cross-government systems effort that has its roots in the federal government’s response to the 2001 attacks. The indictments and the arrests in Alabama resulted from a joint strategic focus on violent street gangs by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI, the Justice Department, and state and local law enforcement, says Kenneth Kaiser, assistant director of the FBI Criminal Investigative Division.
The ability to share information and coordinate operations across local, state and federal agencies was possible in part because of new federal units in the FBI and Justice: the National Gang Intelligence Center (NGIC) at the former and the Gang Targeting, Enforcement and Coordination Center (GangTECC) at the latter.
Now, the push is on to weave together the many sources of gang data that federal, state and local agencies gather and store electronically.
Street gangs are not a new phenomenon, but many cities and towns are experiencing a surge in crime by gangs with tentacles that often cover growing turfs — for instance, a series of high-profile gang murders swept the Washington Beltway communities of the nation’s capital in Maryland and Northern Virginia between 2003 and 2005. And 99 percent of cities with populations of 100,000 or more report gang-related problems as prevalent, according to the Institute for Intergovernmental Research.
Recognizing this trend, Congress approved $10 million in 2005 for the FBI to develop a street gang database tracking system that the newly created NGIC could use to support investigations of violent gangs and as a tool for sharing such information across jurisdictional lines. As part of that congressional mandate, Justice simultaneously launched GangTECC.
GangTECC aims to coordinate overlapping investigations by multiple law enforcement agencies, says George Fong, the center’s unit chief. Its main thrust, he says, is to ensure that tactical and strategic intelligence is shared between law enforcement agencies.
“The mission is to coordinate and ‘de-conflict’ multiple-case investigations that span field offices and agencies,” Fong says.
To make that work, the center has been creating a multiagency federal task force that ultimately will include partners from ATF, the Bureau of Prisons, the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (at the Homeland Security Department) and the Marshals Service.
GangTECC is one facet of a three-pronged approach toward dismantling the country’s most violent gangs. While GangTECC serves as the investigative and coordinating arm, NGIC provides analytical and data analysis. The third prong is the Gang Squad, the Justice lawyers who prosecute the cases. The three entities work together to share information and intelligence that will help local and state agencies with their gang investigations.
“A group or association of three or more persons who may have a common identifying sign, symbol or name and who individually or collectively engage in, or have engaged in, criminal activity, which creates an environment of fear and intimidation. Criminal activity includes juvenile acts that, if committed by an adult, would be a crime.”
SOURCE: National Alliance of Gang Investigators’ Associations (www.nagia.org)
Opening the Files
A major effort going forward at NGIC is to integrate the multiple databases already in use, says NGIC Director Michael Brunton. These include the following:
- GangNet: an intranet-linked gang investigation software developed by a contractor for the California Justice Department that’s now used by more than a dozen states;
- Gang Reduction Analysis Bulletin (GRAB): a system that provides names of suspected gang members and photos of tattoos, cars and graffiti, created by the Cook County Sheriff’s Police Department in Illinois;
- Gang Awareness System (GAS): software used by 10 suburban Chicago police departments to gather gang intelligence;
- Regional Information Sharing System (RISS): a federally funded law enforcement database, started in 1974, that contains information on more than 30,000 suspected gang members nationwide.
For the communications backbone, agencies could use Justice’s Law Enforcement Online. LEO is a secure intranet system built and maintained by the FBI to share sensitive information among qualified law enforcement, criminal justice and public safety officials.
None of these resources is centralized now, “but we just signed a contract with SRA International to do that, and that’s our goal over the next couple years,” NGIC’s Brunton says. Currently, analysts have to access five different systems to get five different pieces of information, he notes, so a unified gang data tool will obviously be a time-saver.
With integration of these databases come security concerns that arise to ensure “confidence that the information will not be compromised by unauthorized access,” Fong notes.
On the Front Lines
The local officers welcome this new sharing, says LAPD’s McDonnell. “I have been with the department for 26 years, working gangs on and off throughout that time, and the relationships with other departments in the years past needed to be improved.”
Currently in its gang abatement work, LAPD has established unprecedented partnerships with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, FBI, ATF, DEA, LA County Probation and other local police departments, he says.
But Los Angeles is not alone, says Jerry Ratcliffe, associate professor of criminal justice at Temple University in Philadelphia. Larger cities, in recent years, have been establishing better working relationships with the feds, he says. “The federal agencies already have a good relationship with the Philadelphia Police Department, like Los Angeles, but it’s the smaller police departments where some communication problems come up.”
McDonnell says that’s true even in Los Angeles. Among neighboring jurisdictions, “information was considered power, and therefore information sat in silos,” he says. “One department would know something about a particular gang, and there was not the organizational need to share that information.”
Although collaboration has im-proved, Brunton says, local organizations “still have some apprehensions” about sharing data with the FBI and other jurisdictions. “We have made great strides to address this.”
To help break down barriers, the FBI and Justice have pumped funding into outreach programs to foster better interagency efforts. “We have already established collaborative relationships. But like anything else, it takes nurturing,” says Duane Deskins, assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. “We maintain those ties, and we keep in communication as best as we can.” It’s working, he adds, because today multiagency groups are addressing each gang on an operation level as well as an executive level.
It’s simply a must-do, says McDonnell: “We are using technology to be a force multiplier for us, knowing that none of us have the resources that we would like to have. In order for us to be effective, we have to use technology and collaborations with other agencies to stretch our resources.”