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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > July 2014 > A Quick Look: Criminal Gang Trends in Ohio

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A Quick Look: Criminal Gang Trends in Ohio

Criminal gangs pose a growing threat to our communities. They can endanger law enforcement and threaten the health and safety of neighborhoods through violence, drugs, prostitution, human trafficking, and other organized crime.

Last year, the National Gang Intelligence Center (NGIC) conducted a survey on community perceptions of gang violence and activity, reporting that gang influence continues to grow. Their reach into communities is expanding through migration from other states, collaboration with drug trafficking organizations and rival gangs, and recruitment of new members. According to NGIC, U.S. gang membership falls into three categories: street gangs, representing an estimated 88 percent of all gang members; prison gangs, approximately 9.5 percent; and outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMGs), about 2.5 percent.
Meanwhile, gangs are becoming more efficient by adapting to changes in society and the economy, using new technology and other strategies to target or evade law enforcement, NGIC reported. Their members are even known to join government groups or take government jobs to obtain information and special skills.
Here’s a look at trends involving OMGs and juvenile squads as well as how the Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) can help law enforcement agencies address gang activity.
Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs
In 11 percent of jurisdictions nationwide last year, OMGs were reported to be the greatest threat and most violent gangs, even though their members make up just 2.5 percent of all gang members.
Detective Mark Lovett of the Columbus Division of Police has tracked OMGs around the state and taught classes on the subject for the past 10 years. Known for a fairly significant presence of outlaw motorcycle gangs, Ohio began seeing an influx of these groups in the 1960s when the gangs migrated into the Midwest from the East and West coasts, Lovett said.
“All have specific patches to identify the gang,” most commonly on a jacket or vest, although sometimes on a motorcycle or helmet, he said. “They want you to know who they are, so they make it pretty easy.”
OMGs typically are organized around drug activity or other organized crime, he said, adding, “Most of them are pretty bold, especially in their contacts with law enforcement. Fear is their power.”
Lovett said Northeast Ohio, particularly Canton and Akron, have large alliances of OMGs. As with street gangs, OMGs recruit locally and tie local motorcycle gangs to national organized crime. For example, the SAW Boys support the Outlaws, while the North Coast Motor Cycle Club supports the Hells Angels in Northeast Ohio. Southwest Ohio, particularly around Cincinnati, experiences problems between the Iron Horseman and Cincinnati Highway Men, and Central Ohio has the Outlaws and Avengers as its major OMGs.
“These rivalries are leading to turf battles in cities, ending in violence,” Lovett said.
Black outlaw motorcycle gangs have also been around since the 1960s, but have expanded in recent years and are now a cross between an outlaw motorcycle gang and traditional street gang, he said.
Traditional street gangs, both neighborhood and national gangs, have a history of confrontation and gun violence. NGIC reported that 80 percent of those surveyed believe this type of gang to be the most violent and problematic for their community.
Juvenile Street Gangs
Fifty-three percent of respondents indicated that street gang membership in their jurisdiction has increased over the past two years, a trend tied in part to the rise in the number of juveniles participating in gangs.
“Gang members are now the children of past gang members,” said a BCI criminal intelligence analyst based in Northwest Ohio. “It’s a family culture.”
Street gangs can be linked to crime in elementary, secondary, and high schools as well as on certain college campuses, NGIC reported. Schools provide fertile ground for recruitment and can experience gang activity such as assaults, robberies, threats, intimidation, drug distribution, and weapons offenses. Gang presence on college campuses is a growing concern as more members are gravitating toward college to escape gang life, join athletic programs, or acquire advanced skill sets for their organizations.
In Columbus, Lovett said, authorities are seeing a new type of street gang called “squads.” Mostly neighborhood-based, squads are highly violent groups of youngsters ages 10 to 18 associated with gun activity. Police routinely find photographs and videos on social media sites of these juveniles brandishing guns, engaging in violent behavior, and wearing gang colors.
“The squads are linking to adult gangs,” Lovett said, “which makes them even more violent.”
Identifying Gangs and Gang Activity
How do you know if you are dealing with a gang in your community? BCI’s Criminal Intelligence Unit (CIU) can help.
CIU works closely with local law enforcement agencies to help identify gangs, members, and trends in each region. “A lot of gangs don’t travel, and more are becoming neighborhood-centered, so a regional approach works best,” the Northwest Ohio analyst said.
A BCI criminal intelligence analyst based in Northeast Ohio said CIU can help agencies by setting up databases, compiling records to identify gang members’ associates or the organizational structure of gang leadership, creating timelines of gangs’ criminal activity, and providing intelligence for roundups.
“For example, CIU assisted the Youngstown Police Department with a case by searching though police reports to help establish the existence of a gang, finding the pattern of criminal activity, and charting out the members and associates of the gang,” the analyst said.
Toledo was experiencing a problem with juveniles assisting adult gangs. While awaiting hearings, many of these juveniles were being housed in the county jail. They would come in with information for adult gang members and take information out. Sometimes this caused problems with violence, especially when the corrections officers did not know the juveniles were associated with gang activity.
“CIU worked with the Toledo Police Department to create a reference book for corrections officers that instructed them how to identify gang affiliation by tattoos or brands,” the Northwest Ohio analyst said. “This helped not only keep the jail safer, but provided intelligence back to the police department.”
CIU can also help agencies organize existing gang files for placement in the Mid Atlantic Great Lakes Organized Crime Law Enforcement Network (MAGLOCLEN), part of the Regional Information Sharing Systems (RISS) program. RISS offers secure information-sharing and communications, critical analytical and investigative support services, and training to enhance officer safety. RISS supports efforts against organized and violent crime, gang activity, drug activity, terrorism, human trafficking, identity theft, and other regional priorities.
Effectively addressing Ohio’s numerous gang-related issues will require cooperation and coordination among agencies, something Lovett already sees happening.
“I think we are on the forefront of reaching solutions with a good number of agencies already working together across Ohio,” he said.
Related links
OPOTA Course: Infiltrating Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs
Bureau of Criminal Investigation
National Gang Report for 2013
National Gang Intelligence Center
National Alliance of Gang Investigators’ Association
Federal Bureau of Investigation gang site
Regional Information Sharing Systems
Ohio Revised Code 2923.41
Jennifer Anne Adair
Deputy General Counsel for Law Enforcement Initiatives