To Deter Violence, Let’s Treat Alt-Right Groups as Street Gangs

Law enforcement efforts to avert the kind of violence seen in Charlottesville last year and Portland, Or., this year would be boosted by anti-street gang strategies, say two researchers.

Often, it has seemed that every public demonstration organized by Alt-Right groups is simply a ruse for violence and intimidation. Fortunately, violence by Alt-Right groups was averted at the Unite the Right 2 rallies in Washington, DC and Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend.

But earlier this month, violence erupted in Portland, Or., when Alt-Right groups clashed with counter-protesters. It was the second such clash in a little over a month.

Explanations given for the lack of violence in the rallies last weekend have largely focused on low attendance by the Alt-Right groups, and the massive police presence.

But if we want to prevent further outbreaks of violence, there are some important steps that can be implemented before the protesters take to the streets.

In both Charlottesville and Portland, traditional crowd control techniques by law enforcement proved insufficient to combat these Alt-Right groups. While this past weekend’s mobilization and deployment of hundreds of law enforcement officers in Washington and Charlottesville may have helped inhibit violence, this approach is not practical or sustainable for every public gathering of the Alt-Right.

Law enforcement should consider alternative approaches to curb the violence that accompanies them. As criminologists who study street and prison gangs, we argue that Alt-Right groups are no different than conventional street gangs, and should be treated as such.

Shannon Reid

Shannon Reid

Approaching these groups as gangs would expand law enforcement’s toolbox to more effective tactics. Decades of gang research have highlighted strategies to combat violence. For instance, gang databases already employed by law enforcement agencies, should be used to identify, collect and share intelligence about Alt-Right members who are routinely engaging in violence.

It would then be feasible to use civil gang injunctions to limit the association and congregation of these individuals. Another successful approach has been focused deterrence/group violence intervention, which concentrates on communicating to chronic offenders, most at risk to sanctions, that violence will not be tolerated while providing these individuals opportunities and resources for desistance.

Such a strategy could easily be deployed for Alt-Right groups.

What is a Gang?

Defining what constitutes a “gang” remains a highly debated topic amongst and between academics, policymakers and law enforcement. Even though there is not a single definition between all parties, many elements remain present.

For instance, according to the Washington, DC criminal code, a “criminal street gang” is as “an association or group of six or more persons” that participates in either a felony (e.g., aggravated assault, murder) or a violent misdemeanor (e.g., simple assault, property destruction, threats of bodily harm).

The code also deems it “unlawful for a person to solicit, invite, recruit, encourage, or otherwise cause, or attempt to cause, another individual to become a member of, remain in, or actively participate in” a gang.

Based upon Washington, DC’s criminal code, a very narrow definition of a gang, any of the individuals participating with Alt-Right groups in felony or violent misdemeanor activity, as observed in Portland or Charlottesville, should be treated as a member of an “Alt-Right Gang”.

Are Alt-Right Groups Comparable to Street Gangs?

In broader terms, gangs are groups of individuals sharing a collective identity, differentiating members that are part of the group from excluded outsiders. A common set of descriptors include particular signs/ symbols, that are either materially displayed or tattooed, colors and clothing styles, although these are not necessary elements for a group.

The typical example is a Blood or Crip gang member wearing a particular color, sports team insignia, or clothing brand. The Proud Boys, an Alt-Right group present at both Charlottesville and Portland, routinely wear their own unique uniform identifying group members— a black Fred Perry polo shirt with yellow piping. Given the historic connections of the clothes being adopted as part of racist skinheads’ uniform, it is probably no coincidence that Fred Perry shirts were selected. (The brand does not endorse these groups.)

In addition to the Proud Boys initiation process, their propensity for and support of violence against non-members clearly indicates the use of criminal acts as a tool to further solidify the groups’ Alt-Right identity.

Another characteristic that street gangs and Alt-Right groups hold in common is durability. As witnessed over the last couple years, the activity of Alt-Right groups is not short-lived. Many of these groups have been able to maintain their presence and grow through social media and online imageboards (e.g., 4chan).

A principal characteristic of a street gang is its orientation towards gathering in public space. While much of the Alt-Right developed online, their actions have spewed forth into the physical world. Furthermore, the public presence of Alt-Right groups is not diminishing and remains highly active at public demonstrations and on college campuses.

Does Ideology Matter?

People may argue that Alt-Right groups differ from gangs because their ideological underpinnings are what actually bind these groups together. The vast majority of members of Alt-Right groups remain tied together more by what they oppose: multiculturalism, feminism, political correctness, globalism, establishment politics (i.e., the Federal Government), and immigration, rather than a rigorous and complex ideology.

In fact, the ideologies referenced by members are often varied, and sometimes contradictory. In essence, ideology should be used as a descriptor instead of an identifier. Most criminal codes do not reference ideology in ascertaining if members are part of gang.

Matt Valasik

Matt Valasik

Street gangs are not a minority-based problem, yet clear bias exists towards considering people of color as gang members compared to their white counterparts. An example of this lack of local police attention towards Alt-Right gangs is clearly observed in Portland.

The Portland Police Bureau’s Gang Database lists 359 gang members, yet, only 32 individuals were listed as being a member of one of seven White Power groups. That is, less than 9 percent of all known gang members. Yet, Portland is not lacking in violent white supremacy groups. If police agencies categorize crimes involving Alt-Right groups as being part of a racist or hateful subculture treating each incident of violence as an isolated event, rather than a gang-related incident, then law enforcement will never know if these Alt-Righters are habitual offenders and will be limited in their intervention capabilities.

Adapting an old adage, if an Alt-Right group looks like a gang, acts like a gang, and sounds like a gang then it should be considered an Alt-Right Gang.

Matthew Valasik, Ph.D., is a criminologist at the Department of Sociology at Louisiana State University. Shannon Reid, Ph.D., is a criminologist at the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. They study street and prison gangs, and their research has recently focused on White Power and Alt-Right groups. They welcome comments from readers.


Did D.C. Police Give Supremacists Too Much Help?

Critics wonder whether Washington, D.C., police spent too much effort protecting two dozen white supremacists at a Sunday rally. The rally’s organizer said the event went so smoothly, he wants to return.

As the Washington, D.C., region tallies the cost of a massive police effort to protect two dozen white supremacists who rallied on Sunday, some are questioning whether the extremist group received too many accommodations, the Washington Post reports. D.C. police and the mayor called the event a success — no injuries, one minor arrest — and said security measures were designed to separate white nationalists and counterprotesters with a history of violent clashes. Those same methods included what appeared to observers as amenities — police escorts and a semiprivate Metro rail car to spirit the rally’s organizer, ­Jason Kessler, in and out of Washington. “All these police here, and they’re protecting them?” said ­Bethan Neal, who joined thousands of counterprotesters held by police at a distance from Kessler and his group.

The region’s ability to ensure a peaceful event may turn out to be a double-edged sword. Kessler, who thanked law enforcement agencies for protecting his right to free speech, said it went so smoothly, he’d like to return. “Hopefully we’ll do more demonstrations in the D.C. area in the future,” he said. Police called the rally a unique event that should not set a precedent for other small groups with incendiary messages to expect the same level of police protection. A spokesman for D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said the violent history between Sunday’s groups set it apart. He said that getting Kessler’s group safely out of Lafayette Square, where the rally was staged, required an “alternative plan” because the anti-fascist group known as antifa and other groups had gathered outside the rally’s entrance points. “There was a sense that tensions were rising,” the chief said. The supremacists walked to the park, flanked by police. After the rally, they left amid an angry throng with the help of police.


How Police Disciplinary Records Can Affect Crime Cases

Nineteen convictions in California were dismissed when prosecutors learned that police officers were being investigated for misconduct. California is the only state where prosecutors may not obtain personnel files of police witnesses.

Pittsburg, Ca., police officer Michael Sibbitt was about to testify in a murder trial when a lieutenant from his department told the court that the officer had resigned more than a year earlier during an investigation into whether he had falsified reports and used excessive force. The 2015 revelation had a sweeping effect, the Los Angeles Times reports. Nineteen convictions secured with help from two officers were dismissed after prosecutors learned of the misconduct investigation. The incident rocked the criminal justice system in the San Francisco suburb and showed how information from officers’ confidential disciplinary files can change the outcome of cases if courts are made aware of the material.

The case was unusual because the lieutenant took it upon himself to reveal the officer’s background. Most of the time, getting this information into court is a convoluted process that often leaves judges, attorneys and jurors in the dark about misconduct by officers who take the stand in criminal proceedings. “It’s one of the more stark examples of why we need to have more transparency about police officers’ backgrounds,”  says Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at Loyola Law School. Internal records of police misconduct are confidential in California, but state law allows judges to order police agencies to bring personnel files to court if an officer’s credibility is formally challenged.  In 21 states, records of significant police discipline are public. In many others, prosecutors and defendants are able to access them, eliminating the need for a judge’s private review. California is the only state in which even prosecutors cannot directly access the personnel file of a police witness. State lawmakers are weighing a proposal this month that would allow the public to see some law enforcement misconduct records.


Sacramento Changes Foot Chase Policy After Shooting

Last March, two Sacramento police officers chased Stephon Clark around a blind corner during a foot pursuit, fatally shooting the young black man after apparently mistaking his cell phone for a gun. Under a new policy, foot pursuits in risky circumstances like the one that ended Clark’s life may be discouraged.

Last March, two Sacramento police officers chased Stephon Clark around a blind corner during a foot pursuit, fatally shooting the young black man moments after apparently mistaking his cell phone for a gun. Under a new policy, foot pursuits in risky circumstances like the one that ended Clark’s life may be discouraged, the Sacramento Bee reports. Officers will be asked to weigh their own safety, the safety of the public and the importance of apprehending the person before and during a pursuit. “(I)t’s really a policy to give direction and guidance … around what our officers are supposed to do, what they’re supposed to think about, what they’re supposed to weigh anytime they get into a situation when they’re chasing after a suspect,” said Police Chief Daniel Hahn.

The department still is investigating the Clark shooting and Hahn said the new policy does not pass judgment on how the two officers handled the chase and shooting. Hahn said the policy is a direct result of the Clark shooting. Foot pursuit policies are still relatively rare in U.S. police departments but have been gaining traction. In 2003, the International Association of Chiefs of Police created a model foot pursuit policy and some departments have policies similar to Sacramento’s. The policy orders officers to continually take their surroundings and the availability of backup into account when chasing a suspect. If officers start a chase, they must activate body-cams, tell their supervisor the reason for the foot pursuit and give a description of the suspect. Officers must identify themselves as officers and order the suspect to stop, something observers said the two officers didn’t do the night they shot Clark. Police use-of-force expert Ed Obayashi said he did not believe the policy would have changed the outcome of the Clark shooting.


Baltimore Officer Who Punched Man Resigns

Officer Arthur Williams was shown on a video repeatedly punching a man who police said refused to show identification. Mayor Catherine Pugh called the incident “disturbing.” Williams has quit, the police department said.

The Baltimore Police Department said that an officer shown on video repeatedly punching a man has resigned from the force, the Baltimore Sun reports. Police, who have not identified the officer, said Interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle had accepted the officer’s resignation and that an “active criminal investigation” remained pending. Warren Brown, an attorney for the man who was beaten, identified the officer as Arthur Williams, who graduated from the Baltimore Police training academy in April and has been with the department since last year.

Video clips circulating online showed Williams confronting a man Brown identified as Dashawn McGrier, 26. Police said the man was not charged with a crime. Brown said McGrier was taken to a hospital and was having X-rays taken of his jaw, nose and ribs for suspected fractures. Brown said McGrier had a previous run-in with Williams in June that resulted in McGrier being charged with assaulting the officer, disorderly conduct, obstructing and hindering, and resisting arrest. Brown said that in that incident and in the one Saturday, McGrier was targeted without justification by the officer. “It seems like this officer had just decided that Dashawn was going to be his punching bag,” Brown said. “And this was a brutal attack that was degrading and demeaning to my client, to that community, and to the police department.” The police department said the incident Saturday began after two officers stopped McGrier, let him go, then approached him again to give him a citizen contact sheet. “When he was asked for his identification, the situation escalated when he refused,” the department said. “The police officer then struck the man several times.” Mayor Catherine Pugh called the encounter between the officer and McGrier “disturbing.” She was in touch with Tuggle and “demanded answers and accountability.”


Can Cities Improve Declining Murder Clearance Rate?

The percent of cases that end with an arrest or identification of a suspect who can’t be apprehended fell to 59.4 percent in 2016, the lowest it’s been since the FBI has tracked the issue. “If we don’t address it, the issue is just going to get worse,” said Jim Adcock, a former coroner who started cold case Initiative to help police departments.

The national murder clearance rate—the percent of cases that end with an arrest or identification of a suspect who can’t be apprehended—fell to 59.4 percent in 2016, the lowest it’s been since the FBI has tracked the issue, reports USA Today. “If we don’t address it, the issue is just going to get worse,” said Jim Adcock, a former coroner who started the Mid-South Cold Case Initiative to help police departments looking to bolster their cold case units. Chicago, which cleared only 26 percent of homicides in 2016, is just one among many cities struggling to solve gun crimes. The problem has been exacerbated by politics, fear, a no-snitching philosophy mentality pervasive in some enclaves, diminished resources for law enforcement and discontent with policing in minority communities. Gangs fueling much of the violence have become less hierarchical. They have also become more perplexing for investigators to understand, said Peter Scharf, a Louisiana State University criminologist.

In cities like Baltimore, Chicago and New Orleans—which cleared under 28 percent of its homicide cases in 2016—the fracturing of gangs has added a difficult dimension for detectives. “It’s a national disaster,” said Scharf. “With every one of these weekends where you see multiple killed and even more wounded and few arrested, the gangs become more emboldened and the witnesses weaker in their conviction to step up.” Memphis, where Adcock is based, saw its homicide clearance fall to 38 percent in 2016. Cities like Boston have made headway. Between 2007 and 2011, the city solved 47.1 percent of homicides. After focusing on the issue, police improved the clearance rate to 56.9 percent. The department increased the amount of evidence analyzed by the crime lab and interviewed more witnesses promptly at crime scenes, say Anthony Braga, a Northeastern University criminologist, and Desiree Dusseault, deputy police chief of staff.


Chicago Takes on ‘Large, Unsanctioned Street Parties’

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson says officers will crack down on parties of the sort that became the scene of several shootings this past weekend, one of the city’s bloodiest in more than two years. Johnson estimated 20 percent of shooting victims this past weekend were taking part in those gatherings.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson says officers will crack down on “large, unsanctioned street parties” of the sort that became the scene of several shootings this past weekend, one of the city’s bloodiest in more than two years, reports the Chicago Tribune. Johnson estimated 20 percent of shooting victims this past weekend were taking part in those gatherings. Tribune data show 74 people were shot, 12 fatally, across the city over the weekend while police counted 66 people shot within a slightly shorter time period. Johnson said 430 officers have been added to patrols in some of the hardest-hit side police districts, and that the number will jump to 600 by this weekend.

Johnson said officers would patrol 30 “emergency hot spot dispersal zones,” where such gatherings historically have occurred. The crackdown will last at least a month. People at parties targeted by police will be told to disperse and face getting a ticket or being arrested. Officers will be looking for people drinking alcohol outdoors, smoking pot, playing music too loud or engaging in other illegal behavior. “I would guess that a lot of those gatherings probably had a gang nexus to it and rival gangs saw them out there and decided to do what they did,” Johnson said. “And, unfortunately, in a lot of instances they don’t care who they shoot. They just know that their rivals are over there and (they) shoot.” Parties grow much quicker than they used to because of social media. “Years ago, a large gathering had to be advertised in order for it to become a large gathering,” said Johnson. “Now, we’ll have people livestreaming from a particular location … and 10 people turn into 200 just like that.” Last weekend marked the worst violence of any weekend in Chicago since before 2016, a year in which homicides hit records unseen for two decades.


Baltimore Police Job Called Nation’s Most Challengng

The resignation of Commissioner Darryl De Sousa in May left Baltimore searching for a new top cop for the third time in three years. The turnover at the top has drawn wide concern. Judge James Bedar, who oversees the city’s consent decree with the Justice Department to reform policing, warned that, “a lack of consistent, strong leadership can have cascading ill effects.”

“I don’t think there is a more challenging police chief job in the country right now” than that of Baltimore Police Commissioner, Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum, tells the Baltimore Sun. “It’s facing a number of challenges: A consent decree, significant crime and issues rebuilding trust.” The resignation of Commissioner Darryl De Sousa in May left Baltimore searching for a new top cop for the third time in three years. The turnover at the top has drawn wide concern. Judge James Bedar, who oversees the city’s consent decree with the Justice Department to reform policing, warned that “A lack of consistent, strong leadership can have cascading ill effects,” and can render the police department’s good faith in the consent decree “almost irrelevant.”

Bredar said the city needs a leader who can not only run the department, but inspire its officers. So who would want the job? “This is a challenging position in a profession that is among the most difficult in the nation,” the city wrote in its job posting. “The rewards for the successful police commissioner are substantial.” City Solicitor Andre Davis says that 10 people have applied. The deadline is Aug. 17. Davis assured Bredar that a commissioner would be named by the end of October. Baltimore appears to be the only major city searching for a new chief. Los Angeles, Seattle and Denver all named internal candidates to lead their departments. Cameron McLay, a former police chief in Pittsburgh who was recently a finalist to lead Seattle’s department, called the turnover in Baltimore a “disincentive.” Calling the job “an extraordinarily high-liability position,” McLay said the violence in Baltimore can be brought under control, but it could take years. Candidates will be concerned they’ll get booted if they fail to turn conditions around immediately.


Oakland Police Bias Continues Despite Oversight

There is mounting frustration that federal oversight and better data collection have not led to real change, despite a massive price tag,

For more than 15 years, Oakland’s police department has been under federal oversight following a police abuse and racial profiling scandal. In a negotiated settlement in 2003, the city agreed to work toward sweeping police reforms, including monitoring of the department, the collection of data on police stops and an end to discriminatory policing.  There’s mounting frustration that federal oversight and better data collection have not led to real change, despite a massive price tag, NPR reports. Stanford University researchers have helped the Oakland Police Department analyze the data from every police stop and arrest. Oakland officers are still far more likely to stop, search and handcuff black people than white people during a traffic or pedestrian stop.

Analysis of bodycam footage also showed that, during traffic stops, officers spoke less respectfully to black motorists than whites. Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick had hoped would become a national model for a data-driven reduction in racially biased policing has become the latest flashpoint for Oakland’s troubled department. Activist residents and some local politicians protested the recent renewal of the Stanford professor’s half-million-dollar, two-year contract. “I don’t understand why she needs to come back and ask for more money,” says Cathy Leonard of Oakland Neighborhoods for Equity. “Fifteen years and a lot of money. We could have housed people, we could fix our streets. It’s a waste of money and a waste of resources.” Leonard says the new system hasn’t worked to reduce racially biased police stops — a key aspect of the federal settlement more than 15 years ago. “


Will Police Respond When Your Burglar Alarm Goes Off?

A study by a home security startup argues they may not. The firm, which advertises its own “artificial intelligence” alternative, says a nationwide survey of law enforcement agencies found that in cities with populations of 50,000 or more, police won’t answer alarm alerts from 40 percent of residents.

Unless you plan to take on burglars and trespassers yourself, a home alarm system might not always be a worthwhile investment, according to the home security startup Deep Sentinel Labs.

The firm, which markets what it says is a more effective alternative to security alarms, released a study Wednesday claiming that for more than 40 percent of residents living in U.S. cities with populations of 50,000 or more, police will not respond or do not guarantee a response to residential alarm calls.

Basing the study on interviews with police in cities across America, the firm claimed that “most police officers believe that 95 percent of audible alarms are false.”

“As a result, many cities and/or law enforcement agencies across America are adopting policies of not responding or not guaranteeing a response to alarms,” the study added.

Deep Sentinel said it found that 78 percent of those living in cities with populations of more than one million will not receive a response, or are not guaranteed a response to alarm calls by local law enforcement.

For cities with populations between 50,000 and one million, the proportion of inhabitants where a home alarm alert will not bring a police response drops to around 30 percent.

The unsigned study said its conclusions were based on an analysis of all city and local laws and policies governing how law enforcement responds to residential home alarm calls, and were “further validated by contacting local police departments by phone.”

The startup’s analysis makes clear that it believes its own home security product, using artificial intelligence, is a more effective and reliable form of home protection because it offers “real time prediction and prevention”—a claim for which it does not offer any statistical support.

The website suggests that the product has still not been marketed to the public.

The top 10 “no-alarm response” cities of the 765 cities analyzed were San Jose, Ca. ; San Francisco; Seattle; Detroit; Las Vegas, Nevada; Milwaukee; Fremont, Ca.; Modesto, Ca.; Fontana, Ca.; and Salt Lake City.

Some of the study’s assertions have been validated by earlier data. According to 2002 data from the Center for Problem Oriented Policing, police respond to over 36 million alarm activations every year, costing an estimated $1.8 billion, 95 percent of which turn out to be false alarms.

Still, the center added, “studies from both the United States and the United Kingdom have shown burglar alarms to be among the most effective burglary-deterrence measures.”

But it went on to say, “a number of other measures that do not impose a substantial burden on police are also effective at preventing burglary.

“Occupancy, or signs of occupancy, is the biggest deterrent.”

The center concluded that while burglar alarms provide a “modest” amount of security burglaries have steadily “and substantially” declined in the U.S. since the early 1980s.

“During the same time, the number of premises with alarms rose, but there is no evidence of a link between the two,” said the center. “During the 1990s through 2004, when alarm ownership experienced a steep rise, other types of crime declined just as sharply as burglary, suggesting that factors other than an increase in the number of alarm systems fueled the burglary decline.”

According to the 2002 study by the Center, some 32 million security alarms have been installed across the United States.

The Deep Sentinel analysis argued that the high number of false alarms has become a major factor in law enforcement policies governing how and when to respond to burglar arms.

Since false alarms “drain resources that would otherwise be used to address real offenses,” many police agencies around the country have “adopted policies of not responding or not guaranteeing a response to alarms,” the study said.

The complete study can be downloaded here.

This summary was prepared by TCR news intern Elena Schwartz. Readers’ comments are welcome.