Dana Nurge is one of San Diego State University’s resident experts on criminal gangs. Specializing in researching the role and participation of women in street gangs, Nurge spends her days ensconced in the worlds of either academia or aggression, playing basketball with gang members one day and attending conferences on gang crimes with professors and sociologists the next.
As crime, particularly violent crime, has dropped in San Diego in recent years, gang crime has remained a growing problem. Last year, gang crime in San Diego spiked 23 percent in the first 10 months of the year compared to the year before, and San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne has vowed to “go after the gangs.”
We sat down to talk to Nurge about why young people are attracted to gangs, the loose definition of what constitutes a “gang” and why girl gang members prefer fist-fighting to shooting each other.
Crime, particularly violent crime, has been dropping in San Diego, but gang crime continues to rise. Why is that?
We don’t exactly know. We could set forth a bunch of theories about that, but the reality is, we’re not exactly sure.
It could be that we’re keeping track of it better — we’re making more gang-related arrests. It could be that gangs are becoming more criminally involved, for a wide variety of reasons, but we don’t know.
Skeptics I’ve talked to have told me there are ways of presenting crime statistics to show that a city’s gang problem is either better or worse than it really is — that those stats are malleable. What do you know about that?
Gang statistics are especially malleable. All crime statistics are malleable, in that you can report more or less of them if you so choose.
But gang statistics are particularly malleable because of the definition of a gang crime is very broad and subject to interpretation. So, it is possible, for a police department, if they wanted to inflate the gang problem, to record more crimes as being gang crimes that year. If they wanted to deflate the problem, they could not report them as gang crimes, report them as crimes generally, or just not report them at all.
I’m not suggesting that San Diego’s doing that, but that has been found in other cities, so it’s theoretically possible.
You mentioned that the definition of gang crime is quite loose, and there seems to be an expanding definition of what exactly constitutes a criminal gang in California. How broad do you think the state’s gang statutes are, and are they overly broad?
Well, you have to establish that a group has been engaged in a pattern of criminal activity, and that has to include certain crimes included in the statute.
So, for example, the Bird Rock Bandits do fit because at least one of the members had several aggravated assaults, which is one of the predicate crimes under the gang statutes. Other groups, such as fraternities here at SDSU, from what we’ve seen so far, it doesn’t look like the statutes fit.
So it’s loose, but it’s not that loose. You have to establish that they had engaged in crimes prior to the current offense.
Gangs have always been a problem, primarily in lower socio-economic neighborhoods. Do you think that, alongside the expanding definition of what a gang is, there is also a growth in gang-related activity in non-traditional environments like middle-class areas?
There’s always been groups, crews, cliques in those higher socio-economic status communities. They weren’t called gangs, and for the most part they’re still not called gangs. It’s hard to know if there’s actual growth in those areas because, again, it kind of depends on how you define “gangs.”
There’s definitely groups in those communities that are problematic and engaged in troublesome behavior, but we normally wouldn’t apply that label to them, and we didn’t to the Bird Rock Bandits until somebody died.
Why don’t we apply that label? Is that a societal thing? A psychological thing? Is it simply because those groups may be predominantly white?
Going back to the early days when we first started addressing gangs in this country, in the 1800s, they were immigrant youth from Europe, they were the poorest of the poor, they were the kids who were out in the streets and considered problematic by the middle classes.
It’s not really much different today. They’re not European, but they’re still the poor kids who are out on street corners and considered troublesome.
In middle-class communities, there are more resources to help kids. Parents might be more available to provide discipline, there’s just a different reaction to a troublesome middle-class teenager than to a troublesome lower-class teenager.
What about fashion trends? Do you think there’s been a growth in the allure of gangs in middle-class areas?
I think there is probably more of an allure of the gang lifestyle or the idea of having to prove that someone has your back — that stuff’s been popularized in the media.
Can you name five gangs in San Diego?
I could, but I won’t.
Ok. Why not?
Because the ones that I name will be considered the biggest or the baddest. Gangs love press — not that they read voiceofsandiego.org, necessarily.
How do you get into contact with the gang members you talk to, and how do they respond to you?
For the research I did in Boston — I did five years research and then five years follow-up research — I got in touch with outreach workers and through playing basketball at community centers. I developed trust over several years through both of those avenues.
Here, there are former gang members who are outreach workers, and I’ve met people through those youth workers. It really varies.
When you’re researching this stuff, do you find that gang members often want to tell you their stories, or are they cagey?
As long as you establish an element of trust and they believe that your desire to talk to them is legitimate and you’re not a cop and you’re not trying to gather intelligence on them, I’ve found them to be very open, wanting to tell their story and wanting people to understand where they’re coming from and why they do what they do.
In the conversations you’ve had with gang members, is there a common reason, a common trend, why these people choose to join gangs?
There’s different reasons for everybody, and I don’t want to over-generalize, but the top three reasons that you always hear from gang members and you always see in the research, is that they join for protection — from other gangs, from kids in the neighborhood; that they join for family — brotherhood and sisterhood, belonging; and that they join for status, to become known for something — for being in that group.
How bad is the gang problem here in San Diego, and how much does the segregation between rich and poor neighborhoods keep that problem out of view for most middle-class San Diegans?
I think the average San Diego citizen isn’t aware that there’s a gang problem in San Diego, because they don’t encounter it on a daily basis. You don’t encounter it if you’re downtown. You don’t encounter it, for the most part, if you’re at the beaches.
So people aren’t aware that there is a gang problem, but there definitely is. We have about 90 documented gangs, we have an increasing rate of gang crime. It’s been a problem here for many years, it continues to be a problem here. Compared to some cities, it’s bigger, but compared to L.A., it’s minuscule.
You’ve done a lot of research into women in gangs. Is that a growing problem, a growing phenomenon?
Nobody’s sure if it’s growing or if it’s just receiving increasing attention. In the past decade or so, there’s been a lot more attention to girls in gangs, a lot more research on the topic.
And, for many years, a lot of police departments didn’t even document girls in gangs, they just didn’t include them. By definition, girls weren’t gang members. Now they’re more apt to document girls, there are lots more female officers, to be able to search girls. A lot of crimes girls were thought to be getting away with, like holding weapons or drugs, they’re now not able to get away with.
So we don’t know if there’s more now, because we didn’t really keep track before. Our statistics for girls in gangs have been very sketchy.
But girls are certainly a much smaller proportion of the gang crime problem. They probably comprise at least one-third to one-half of all gang members, but when it comes to crime, they’re not going to be involved, for example, in guns or homicides nearly as much.
When girls are violent, they’re not using guns. Girls like to fight one-on-one, they like to old-school battle it out. They don’t, for the most part, respect using guns in fights.
Are there any all-girl gangs in San Diego?
I don’t know yet. There usually are at least one or two all-girl gangs in most cities that have gangs, but I haven’t done research yet specifically on girls here in San Diego.
In Boston, out of 35 gangs identified with females, there were five that were all-girl gangs.