Listening in ... to gang culture.

Author:Beare, Margaret E.


High-profile gang shootings gain high-profile publicity. Gang violence across Canada is now perceived to be a serious crime problem, with the suspected links to international drug trafficking and other organized criminal operations that reach beyond local communities. There appears to be a nonchalance in the way young men are shooting and being shot in public places during daylight hours. The perception is that, somehow, gun violence has become "different"--more unpredictable, with more innocent bystanders. (1) Across Canada "gangs 'n' guns" enforcement appears to be the policing strategy of choice with priority areas being targeted. Rather than focus on individual criminal suspects, the police philosophy has become one of going after the gangs using of criminal organization legislation that allows a wide array of gang members, associates, and friends to be arrested for their roles in participating in or facilitating gang activity. The goal is, therefore, to dismantle the gangs and police wiretaps provide much of the evidence for court. As a consequence, gangs are rounded up. Some members are convicted. A few go to jail--and more gang members are recruited while confined within the prison system. The cycle then continues. In part, what is needed is continued academic research related to understanding how urban youth gangs function within a Canadian-specific context. As Scot Wortley and others, including Robert Gordon, have concluded, "Unfortunately, youth gangs in Canada have attracted much more media attention and public concern than academic research" (Wortley and Tanner 2006: 18; Gordon 2000: 40). It is within this context that this paper seeks to contribute to our understanding of the characteristics of deviant gang behaviour in Canada, with a focus on one specific segment--the leaders and close core gang members within one specific gang.

Data and methodology

Research into gang behaviour takes several forms. Aside from the information that is derived either directly or indirectly from law enforcement, Canadian gang-related research has traditionally consisted of detailed surveys and in-depth interviews (Ministry of Public Safety, Canada 2007; Chettleburgh 2002; Wortley and Tanner 2006; Totten 2009; Baron 2008, 2009a, 2009b; Gordon 2000, 1998, 1995). Participant observation is another approach that has been used and that is, perhaps, the most comprehensive--and the most difficult to do. Classic U.S. street gang literature, beginning, perhaps, with Frederic Thrasher's 1927 book The Gang and followed by studies such as Elliot Liebow's Tally's Corner and William Foote Whyte's Street Corner Society succeeded in achieving a comprehensive and simultaneously in-depth analysis of the worlds that they studied via participant observation. Similarly, Albert K. Cohen's Delinquent Boys: the Culture of the Gang--describes his findings as "a real picture, drawn from life ... in its natural habitat, the streets and alleys of our cities" (Cohen 1955: 333). Common to all of these classic studies and the vast array of subsequent research that they influenced was the role of prolonged observation within the subject's natural environment as a method of gaining insight into social behaviour. A more recent U.S.-based participant observation example of gang research is the 2008 book by Sudhir Venkatesh of the "Black Knight" gang, Gang Leader for a Day. For almost a decade, beginning while he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, he lived in the poor black neighbourhood around the university. As the gang leader said to Venkatesh, when he first arrived to ask gang members to answer survey questions on behalf of his professor,

You shouldn't go around asking them silly-ass questions ... With people like us, you should hang out, get to know what they do, how they do it. No one is going to answer questions like that. You need to understand how young people live on the streets. (Venkatesh 2008: 21).

This supports the claims from early research by Albert Cohen and H. Hodges, who concluded that, with marginalized groups--in their case poor black men,

it is possible that interview and questionnaire techniques are more likely, when applied to Lower-lower respondents than when applied to respondents of other strata, to produce caricatures in which halftones and shadings, present in the subject, are obliterated in the image. (Cohen and Hodges 1963: 333)

Participant observation has been used to only a limited degree to study gangs within a Canadian context, and seldom, if ever, youth gangs. Works such as Daniel R. Wolf's, The Rebels: A Brotherhood of Outlaw Bikers, reveal how valuable the participant observation methodology can be in gaining insights into the often hidden subcultural dynamics of criminally deviant populations (Wolf 2000). (2)

Present study: Analysis of wiretap transcripts

We offer a different option as a research method, by doing a qualitative analysis of police wiretap transcripts produced during an investigation into gang activity. (3) The methodological approach that we use in this paper allows researchers to gain information about the lives of gang members without influencing their environment--to be observers of their narratives, without being physically present. A fairly large number of gangs in Canadian cities have been subject to police wiretaps. While these tapes were made by the police to gain evidence for criminal convictions, from a purely academic perspective, we were not specifically interested in the criminal conduct or in the identity of the speakers but, rather, in gang culture and the relations between and among gang members. The use of police transcripts as a means to understand gang behaviour is unique among the major forms of quantitative analysis that have been used to assess gang dynamics.

Police received Superior Court authorizations to intercept communications over two separate, 2-month time periods between December 2003 and May 2004, which resulted in a total of 130,000 calls being stored and analysed for the purposes of the police investigation. The Crown filed the transcripts of approximately 600 intercepted calls to be introduced as evidence in court. Our analysis is based upon these interceptions. We have kept confidential the identity of the speakers, changed the name of the gang, and refer to the location only as being within an urban Canadian city. The names used in the direct quotes are obviously false. We have called our gang the "Headhunters" and will refer to their rivals as the "Rivals."

This qualitative approach to assessing wiretap content is unique within the literature inasmuch as prior research using wiretap information has relied upon quantitative methodological structures (Natarajan 2000, 2006; Morselli, 2009; Campana and Varese, 2012; Varese 2012, forthcoming). These quantitative approaches have been used primarily for the purposes of developing network analysis of organized criminal behaviour and have been used most notably in relation to assessing the dynamics of narcotic distribution (Natarajan 2000, 2006; Morselli 2009) and the arrangement of organized crime syndicates (Varese 2012, forthcoming).

While quantitative approaches have been effective in understanding these specific elements of criminal networks, qualitative approaches that focus on the conversations themselves and the context within which the conversations take place can offer a degree of insight into the social behaviour of gangs rarely available to researchers via other methodological approaches. As Campana and Varese (2012: 15) note, the advantage of the data drawn from wiretap records over other methodological approaches is the fact that the conversations being analysed occur in their "natural" setting, which can, in turn, offer a more in-depth picture of the group and its behaviour.

Gang characteristics of the headhunters

Gang researchers have recognized that there are definitional dilemmas in relation to identifying and categorizing gangs. The gang literature emphasizes the importance of differentiating among different gang types to focus prevention and even enforcement efforts where they might be most effective and also to facilitate comparative analysis between and among separate gangs (Esbensen, Winfree Jr., He, and Taylor, 2001; Barrows and Huff 2009; Grekul and LaBoucane-Benson 2008; Van Gemert 2012). Canadian scholars who have devised gang typologies include Robert Gordon (2000), who devised a six-category typology (youth movements, youth groups, criminal groups, wannabe groups, street gangs, and criminal business organizations), and Scot Wortley (2010), who used a four-level continuum that delineates different gangs based upon their degree of organization and stability. (4)

Making full use of these typologies requires having fairly detailed information on many, if not most, of the gang members being studied. That is not the case with our research. While there are advantages to wiretap analysis, there are limitations. Information is gathered only from those gang members who are being taped and those with whom they have had conversations. Therefore, much of what we know about the gang as a whole is restricted to media coverage, the police, and court testimony. Based on the transcripts alone, the commitment, degree of sophistication, use of violence, and clear identification with "their" gang places the leaders and core members of the Headhunters gang firmly within Gordon's street gang category. Likewise, the breadth of Gordon's categories, together with what we know from the additional sources listed above, support our claim that the gang, as a whole, is best located in this category. Gordon distinguishes his criminal business organization category from street gangs based on the former's preference for maintaining a low profile and their tendency to be older (Gordon 2000: 48). There is nothing low profile about the Headhunters, and while there is a fairly wide...

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