As a police supervisor in any major city in America, you know that your officers will probably have frequent contact with gang members in the course of their daily duties. To solve gang crimes, officers must get out of the car and meet with gang members. It’s your job, as their supervisor, to ensure your officers are properly and safely contacting and documenting gang members, because gangs continue to pose significant issues nationwide.
Your uniformed patrol or gang unit officers are constantly challenged with the identification and determination of an individual’s potential gang affiliation. These officers, in particular, are an essential source of gang information and usually make up the frontline defense against gangs. Gang members know this, and they will blend in with their community, avoid police contact and lie about affiliations and monikers in order to evade arrest. It is imperative, therefore, that officers interviewing potential gang members take thorough notes in a standardized format. Such information can make or break a case down the line.
Field interview (FI) cards provide a standardized format for your officers to employ during interviews with suspected gang members that will help to establish who is in the gang and enhance police intelligence. They will help your investigators establish gang trends, membership and activities. FI cards also encourage your officers to interact with gang members on their beat. This provides officers a psychological advantage: The gang members know they’ve been identified and know the police won’t hesitate to contact them when necessary, including for arrest and prosecution as a gang member. Field interviews also allow for the establishment of potential sources within the gang, and such informants are frequently called upon in court.
Following are proven techniques that will ensure your officers get the most out of their field interviews for gang investigations.
Gang Member Interviews
Field interviews are the bread and butter of any gang investigator, and good investigators get the information they need. Why are some officers good at contacting gang members and conducting gang related investigations, where others struggle? What characteristics do good gang officers possess?
Just as individual gang members have reputations within their gang, so do officers develop reputations on their beats, which will play a large role in how officers will be treated by gang members. Gang members may consider your officers hard-nosed or understanding; dishonest or trustworthy; incompetent or competent. They talk about which officers they can disrespect and which they can’t. Gang members sense fear, weakness and incompetence in officers and so officers must prepare to be tested. For example, the gang member may purposefully fail to follow commands to see what they will do. They may run from your officers on contact to see if they give chase, or they may lie to you to see if their answers are accepted without question or challenge.
Gang members uniformly demand respect, whether they are entitled to it or not. This can usually be addressed by maintaining a fair but firm attitude and demeanor. When interviewing a gang member, officers and supervisors must uphold the same professional conduct expected of them in other instances. Officers who treat gang members with respect typically receive fewer citizen complaints, reducing the workload of the supervisor who will be tasked with responding to these complaints. This also helps later on, when cultivating gang members as informants, as well as conducting proactive investigations against the gangs. I acknowledge that, often, no matter how respectful and knowledgeable the officer might be, the gangster may be uncooperative. However, many gang members do cooperate with investigations—when they feel it’s to their advantage to do so.
Standard interview techniques generally work with suspects who aren’t frequent criminal offenders, but additional effort is often required when dealing with experienced criminals. The officer or investigator must understand and overcome the rules and customs of the gang subculture if progress is to be made when interviewing a gangster, whether in the field or in a controlled setting. It’s critical that officers understand what motivates gang members. By talking with them, officers will gain an understanding of the gang mind-set, which will allow them to discern the appropriate ways to approach them and gain information.
When interviewing a group of gang members, it’s often beneficial for your officers to start with the youngest or least experienced member in the group. That member may provide enough factual information that will make it appear to the older members that you know more than you do. It’s also critical to immediately isolate gang members suspected of being involved in a crime, so they don’t have the opportunity to agree on a story. If you do put them together in the backseat of a police car, for example, record their conversation for future use. It’s amazing what gangsters will say when you put them together and walk away from the car for a few minutes—especially immediately after a crime your officers are investigating.
If you or your officers are talking to a gang member about something significant, such as information about specific crimes or other gang members, do it in an area where other gang members can’t hear your conversation. To limit the chances of harm coming to the helpful gang member, your officers should not do anything that will let the other gang members know that the subject was cooperative. Encourage gang members to do the right thing and help us. Most won’t, but sometimes it happens, and we must ensure cooperation is confidential.
How do you know when a gang member is lying? Many officers say it’s when you see their lips moving. Some gangsters will lie to the police as a matter of routine. Good interviewers, therefore, ask questions to which they already know the answer. If you catch a gang member lying to a control question, it gives you the ability to confront them and possibly break them. Note: Most gang members don’t lie well under pressure. Telling the truth simply involves remembering what happened; lying requires a level of creativity and logic that’s hard to sustain under the pressure of an experienced interrogator.
Important :Don’t threaten a gang member with arrest without first having sufficient reason for arrest. If you fail to follow through with what you say, the gang will continue to challenge your authority, making future contacts potentially more hazardous.
Field Interview Cards
As your officers are making the initial contact with gang members to conduct a field interview, they should be on the lookout for any indications of criminal activity to upgrade a consensual contact into a detention and your detention into an arrest. Remember :Almost any criminal violation will support a detention (municipal code violations, curfew violation, loitering, possession of alcohol by minors and so forth). Document the violation, or suspected violation, on the FI card in the “Crime Potential” box and briefly describe it in the remarks section. It’s then the job of the supervisor to ensure the gang unit receives the information to update the department’s gang files.
Remind your officers that gang members often discard contraband when they see an officer approaching, or they’ll hide weapons and other contraband close by, where it can be readily accessed. For this reason, officers must check the area surrounding the contacted gang members for abandoned weapons, drugs or other contraband. If found, contact may become a means for detention while you investigate to whom the items belong. Even if the contraband can’t immediately be linked to an individual, it can be disposed of per your department’s policy or tested for prints and DNA at a later time.
While interviewing subjects, be aware that most gang members are very conscious of being “respected.” If you disrespect a gang member in front of their peers, they’re less likely to tell you anything about themselves or the gang. The disrespect doesn’t have to be real, only perceived by the gang member. Occasionally the “dissed” gang member will become confrontational or violent toward the officer to save face with their peers. This has the potential to escalate, and officers should do what they can to redress the situation without sacrificing their command presence.
After an officer has established open communication with the suspected gang member, they should ask about their gang affiliation and moniker, or street name. It will benefit your investigations immensely during these contacts to be familiar with the gangs in the area, who the local gang members are and what areas they claim. If the subject is hesitant to claim, ask them about their clothing, belt buckles, tattoos or any other indications of gang involvement you may have noticed during the contact.
Have your officers take time to investigate and record the correct moniker. Check to see if the gang member has an address book on their person with gang names in it, and take the time to record that information for gang investigators. Do they have graffiti on their hats, belts or shoes that reveals their moniker? Often, gang members will have personal photos of friends and family in their wallet. Check the backs of photos for messages that may be addressed to a specific moniker. When many gang crimes occur, the victims may know only that it was “Speedy” or “Flaco” who was responsible. Obtaining a moniker is therefore crucial to your investigations.
Completing agency information on an FI card is critical. Without it, tracking down an officer or related reports for use in court can be difficult. Dates of events are also important, because tracking gang-related incidents by date, time and location can help determine where and when gangs are most active and facilitate anti-gang operations.
Ensure the interview location and time are the same on every FI card. This will help link them together in later investigations and computer checks. Often, five or six officers can be contacting a large group of gang members without knowing it. The officers on one side of the corner may put 1200 Main St., while officers just 20 feet away may put 100 Elm St. This makes later computer checks a little more difficult and may give the impression of less gang cohesion than is the case.
Sophisticated offenders are aware that confusion hinders law enforcement. Frequently, Hispanic and Asian gang members will pretend to be ignorant of English or offer multiple names and monikers. Persistence pays off.
Getting details straight on FI cards is critical. Many gang members of Hispanic descent use both paternal and maternal last names. For instance, the name Juan Manuel Garcia-Flores is composed of four elements: Juan is the first name, Manuel is the middle name, Garcia is the paternal last name and the legal name, and Flores is the maternal last name. The names are traditionally joined by a hyphen, the conjunction “ y ” or not at all. Officers must recognize both last names and record them accurately in criminal records to avoid confusion.
Phone numbers can also prove critical. Officers should remember to include an area code. They should get the cell number of any cell phones on their person, get their pager numbers, if possible review the numbers they have called recently and make note of which service provider they have. Phone numbers should be checked by dialing them. Quiz suspects on the information they’ve provided. If you aren’t satisfied, have an additional unit check the houses while you detain the subject to confirm the information or have your dispatcher verify the information provided in a database or by making phone calls if necessary. All of this may become important in later gang investigations.
Vehicle information is also critical. Most gang members drive cars not registered to them; some may even drive without a license or insurance. An FI card may be the only way to link a specific gang member to a specific vehicle. The plate, registered owner, color and a detailed description should be noted.
Important :Officers must record all tattoos, scars and marks. Don’t take their word for it: Have gang members lift their shirts (if appropriate) to expose their back, stomach and chest. If they have a picture tattoo, officers should describe it with as much detail as possible and take a photograph, if it’s legal to do so.
Above all, officers must be meticulous about noting why the person was stopped. What specific criteria were violated? What did the suspect say? What were they doing? And with whom? If they were looking into car windows, running from the scene of a gang fight or just loitering in front of a store, this must be noted on the FI card.
In the “crime potential” section, clearly indicate on the FI card that it is gang related by putting “Gang Related,” “186.22 PC,” “999” or whatever your department’s code in the “crime potential” section or narrative box. This ensures the FI card gets to the gang unit, where it belongs. Also, add the section of law that they were violating when you made contact with them to help justify the FI. Put the documentation criteria in the narrative, such as admitted gang member, wearing gang hat, was with two other admitted gang members, etc.
Whenever feasible, have officers take a photograph of their subjects. Photographs are critical to the gang documentation process, but there are legal issues that officers must be aware of when photographing subjects during field contacts. The photograph may be used to identify the person as a suspect in a serious case and may prove decisive court. A photograph obtained as a result of an illegal detention can be suppressed in court, as will, probably, any identification made of the suspect by the victims and witnesses using this photograph. A person who exposes their facial features, and/or body in general, to the public, in a public place, has no reasonable expectation of privacy in their appearance. Basically, you can photograph a subject during a field interview if the subject gives consent or if the photograph was obtained during a lawful detention.
Good photographs require good cameras and settings. Officers should be provided with a quality camera (e.g., 35 mm or digital), and pictures should be taken against a light background. Show the subject from mid-chest up, or from the same distance each time you take them to be consistent. Have them remove hats and sunglasses, and have them look straight without smiling. Take a photo with clothing, including hats and sunglasses, if clothing is going to be an identifying issue. In such cases, you may want to take a full-length shot, as well. If you can, take a group shot of them throwing up gang signs. This can provide great evidence in the future, when a subject claims they’re not a gang member. I often get the group to allow me to take their photo by telling them they can have a copy. Often, the photos they walk away with will be found during a future probation or parole search.
After photos have been taken, make the appropriate comments on the back of the photograph: the subject’s full name, date of birth, circumstances under which the photo was taken, case or FI numbers, officer’s name, officer’s ID number and the date the photo was taken. This information is critical to a photo line-up or use as evidence in a future court proceeding.
Noting the clothing worn is also important. A pair of tennis shoes—even the color of the laces on a pair of tennis shoes—could be an indication of gang affiliation. There are specific events where gang members will proudly display their colors, often on particular dates in the year. Finally, ensure the officer’s name and beat are recorded, so that if the FI card is used in court to prove a gang enhancement, the officer can be located to testify.
In order for a subject to be initially documented as a gang member in my department, we must meet at least three of the following criteria. Requirements, however, vary among departments and between states. Multiple criteria can be met in a single contact or over time.
Criteria No. 1 :Admission that they’re a member of a specific gang. If they claim to be a “Crip” or “Blood,” for example, make sure to ask what “set” they claim. The narrative should say something like, “Subject admitted to being a West Coast Crip for the past four years.” Their admission is strong evidence of gang membership. While they are talking about being in the gang, get their moniker, and find out how long they’ve been a member of the gang. Gang members have become more aware of the penalties being used against gangs, and many have become more and more hesitant to “claim” gang membership to law enforcement. However, if the officer is a skilled interviewer and knowledgeable about gangs, many gang members will admit membership.
Criteria No. 2 :Subject displays gang-specific clothing, tattoos or “paraphernalia.” The important factor with these criteria is that they must be clearly related to a specific gang. Gone are the days of being able to call subjects gang members because they’re wearing baggy clothes, Raiders jackets and blue bandanas, and have tattoos of three dots on the web of their left hands. For example, if the subject had a belt with the chrome buckles “M” and “T” attached to it, “Menudo” embroidered on his bandana and “MTL” tattooed on his forehead, these would be valid indicators that he is involved with the Menudo Town Locos.
Listing “numerous” under the tattoos section doesn’t help—unless the subject has the word “numerous” tattooed on his body! Be specific and list all of the identifying tattoos the subject has. If you need more space to document the tattoos, use the remarks section or continue to list them on the back of the FI card.
Other frequently overlooked examples of gang paraphernalia are the writings a person may have on their personal belongings (wallet, phone lists, school notebook, etc.) and any gang-related photographs they might have with them. Gang graffiti or rosters in their property should be photocopied and attached to the arrest report or FI card. Do the same with photographs depicting gang members “throwing” hand signs or displaying weapons.
Criteria No. 3 :Subject is arrested for delinquent or criminal activity with another known gang member. This means that the companion must have claimed their gang membership at the time of the contact or they must be documented as a gang member. What does “delinquent/criminal activity” mean? This covers anything an adult can be arrested for and also provides for the miscellaneous status offenses committed by juveniles, like curfew violation or truancy. List the specific crime section they violated to help establish the FI card as being a lawful detention, rather than a consensual encounter.
Criteria No. 4 :Subject is an associate. The subject may not (yet) be a member of the gang, but they frequently associate with known members. This criterion should be noted when a suspected gang member won’t claim membership to law enforcement but commonly hangs out with the gang. FI reports listing companions are very important when it comes to documenting a gang member this way.
Criteria No. 5 :Information from a reliable informant identifies the subject as a gang member. This criterion is rarely used to initially document a subject as a gang member, but it can be helpful to support and maintain a subject’s current documented status as a member of a gang. A “reliable informant” can be anyone who would have true knowledge of a subject’s membership in a gang. These can be family members, other members from the subject’s gang, other law enforcement sources, etc. Critical :The informant must be a person who would know that the subject is a gang member.
As a supervisor, you approve crime and arrest reports. You should also approve all completed field interview cards, which can be instrumental in officially documenting a street gang member or updating the status of currently documented gang members or associates. Two things must occur for the FI card information to be used: First, an officer must take the time and initiative to fill out the field interview card; and second, the card must be accurately and completely filled out. You must review this information before it is uploaded it into an official database to ensure these criteria have been met.
Ensure your officers are contacting gang members in as safe and professional a manner as possible. Operations, warrants and sweeps must be well-staffed, with established communications, so that everyone completes the operation unscathed. Remember: No gang arrest is worth injury or death to an officer. As a supervisor, stay involved, keep your people safe and remain vigilant. Constant pressure—and meticulous notes—are the only way to keep gangs from overwhelming the streets.