Looks can be deceiving

Jeff Ferrell, professor of criminal justice, said he teaches a class on juvenile delinquency.

“The real issue for researchers and police and politicians is to define what is a gang and be able to define who’s in a gang,” he said. “It’s really a contentious issue.

“In fact, by many of the conventional definitions of gangs, fraternities would be gangs, which clearly they’re not gangs. That shows the ambiguity because all that we define gangs as is ongoing affiliations of kids who have common values and rituals, and engage in long-term deviant or criminal behavior.”

Ferrell said misidentifying youths as gang members is the most common mistake police make.

“Often, if you look at the federal guidelines on identifying a gang member, much of it is based on things like tattoos and clothing styles,” he said. “Kids may wear sagging pants or they may have a tattoo because of their neighborhood or because of their desire to be affiliated, but that may not make them an actual gang member.”

However, Wafeeq Sabir, a gang officer in the intervention and prevention section, said it’s easy to identify a gang member based on the definition stated in the Texas Penal Code, which defines a gang as “three or more persons with a common identifying sign or symbol or leadership who continuously or regularly associate in the commission of criminal activity.”

But Ferrell said youths shouldn’t always be classified as gang members.

“If you sweep your net too wide, you’ll push one of these into gangs,” he said. “You’ll get kids into the juvenile justice system early and create some cause for them to pull out of their education. So a safer bet is to work toward presuming innocence – which is our classic legal system – that we presume kids aren’t in gangs rather than presume they are.”