Gang Violence and Civil Liberties

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

There has been a lot of media buzz lately about gang violence, and from our perspective, that’s both a good and a bad thing.  For example, when I read this article about a gang crackdown in the Tri-Cities, I felt both sympathy and frustration:

Sympathy, because of course, we all want safe families, safe neighborhoods, and safe cities.  The violence described in the article should be addressed, and to the extent that articles like this highlight the problem and suggest that more resources are needed to do the work of community policing, we’re all for it.

But the article’s reference to “known gang members” begs the question—how do they “know” who the gang members are?  Is it because they are actually being accused of committing crimes?  Or is it based on other factors—the individuals’ appearance, clothing, or associations?  These are critical questions to ask because we have seen similar gang crackdowns in other states skew disproportionately towards people of color.  We have seen also repeated attempts to use the “gang member” label to short-circuit due process rights.  For example, in Olympia this session, a number of bills were introduced that would punish suspected gang members—with enforcement happening on the basis of mere suspicion of gang membership, rather than actual proof that an individual had committed any crime.

This approach to enforcement has it backwards.  The focus should be on actual criminal activity, not on whether an individual “belongs to” a gang—the label is a distraction rather than a useful tool.  Allocating our scarce law enforcement resources on the basis of whether someone looks like a gang member, rather than whether we think someone has committed a crime, virtually guarantees that we will get no closer to solving the issue of gang violence.

And don’t get me started on the other non-sequitur in the article—the looming presence of the war on drugs, a phenomenon that feeds into making gang activity profitable.  The authors do a great job of condemning the violence that the drug war has spawned—but don’t take the logical next step of questioning whether the problem might be the drug war itself.  My guess is that as long we keep drug possession illegal and make drug trafficking such a profitable activity, we’ll be fighting the same losing battle against drug trafficking and criminal activity.  It’s time to consider whether there might be better uses for our resources than pouring them into this bottomless rathole.