What is a Gang?

Gangs may consist of a few individuals with little organization who commit minor crimes to highly organized groups with numerous members involved in sophisticated transnational crimes and criminal enterprise. Gangs form for many different reasons - including profit through criminal activity, territorial claims, protection, culture or community history.

Gangs that commit most quality of life crimes that affect communities and neighborhoods are criminal street gangs. In Washington State, a criminal street gang is defined as any ongoing organization, association, or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, having a common name or common identifying sign or symbol, having as one of its primary activities the commission of criminal acts, and whose members or associates individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal street gang activity (RCW 9.94A.030(12)).  A criminal street gang member or associate means any person who actively participates in any criminal street gang and who intentionally promotes, furthers, or assists in any criminal act by the criminal street gang (RCW 9.94.030(13)).

Subgroups: Sets/Cliques

Criminal street gangs are often organized through a structure of subgroups known as sets or cliques. Their formation is sometimes based on the characteristics of nationally recognized gangs whose perceived notoriety makes them appealing for copying. 

These local gangs are usually not directly associated with the nationally recognized gangs, but are highly influenced by them. They often adopt derivatives of their names and use their indicators such as hand signs, symbols, colors, and graffiti.  There are also some local street gangs who form with very little to no influence from nationally recognized gangs and develop their own characteristics and indicators.

Levels of Involvement

There are several levels of involvement within a gang starting with the youngest recruits who will eventually become its "soldiers", to the adults who make up gang leadership.

Wanna Be/Gonna Be

This level usually involves youth between the ages of 10 and 14 who are not initiated but are potential recruits. They view gang involvement as exciting. They are usually expected to participate in criminal activity such as committing minor theft, acting as lookouts, delivering drugs, handling illegal weapons, skipping school and vandalizing property with graffiti. This level may also introduce the use of cigarettes, alcohol, inhalants or marijuana.

Active Gang Member
(Soldier/Gangsta/"G"/YG - Young Gangsta)

At this level, youth have been initiated into the gang and are being trained on how to serve the gang. The usual age of members at this stage is 14 to17. They will continue to allow their peers to influence their involvement with the gang and their activity will increase to include crimes such as theft, assault, aggravated assault, drive-bys, burglary and robbery. The use of drugs becomes more frequent and may include the addition of cocaine and crack.

Active Older Member
(Soldier/Gangsta/YOG - Young OG)

This level of gang activity includes young adults aged 17 to 24. The active older members will occasionally participate in gang activity, but their main responsibility is supervising the younger gang members and organizing daily gang activity. They plan and conduct meetings, and oversee recruiting of new members while answering to the original gangsters or other leaders of the gang. Drug use and/or sales increase and become part of everyday of life for these members.

Original Gangster

This is the highest rank of street gang involvement. The original gangsters are usually life members who have worked their way up the ranks of the gang. They are totally committed and dedicated to the gangster life. They oversee all gang activity and usually control the gang with little or no interaction with the lower gang members.


These are youth who associate with and/or befriend known gang members. They hang out with the gang but are not initiated into it. They seek assistance from the gang when it is convenient for them, especially when they feel they need protection. They will on occasion claim the gang's signs, symbols and colors, and sometimes participate in the gang's criminal activities.

Source: Gang Awareness Training Manual - City of Albuquerque Mayor's Anti-Gang Office

Gang Members

Washington State defines a Criminal Street Gang Member or Associate as
any person who actively participates in any criminal street gang and who intentionally promotes, furthers, or assists in any criminal act by the criminal street gang.  (RCW 9.94A.030)


In order to evaluate changing levels of participation and active participation specially trained law enforcement officers look at many behaviors to decide if a person is active within a specific gang.  These behaviors may include:

Subject has admitted to being a gang member.


Subject has been arrested with known gang members for offenses consistent with gang activity.


Subject has been identified as a gang member by a reliable informant/source.


Subject has been identified as a gang member by an untested informant.


Subject has been seen affiliating with documented gang members either in person or photos.

A photo alone cannot justify these criteria.  The training and experience of the officer will be relied on in determining the context of the photo.


Subject has been seen displaying gang symbols and/or hand signs.


Subject has been seen frequenting gang areas.


Subject has been seen wearing gang specific attire.


Subject is known to have gang specific tattoos or gang specific body modifications. Knowledge of these body markings must be documented.


An admission of gang membership during an in-custody jail/prison classification interview.

Any one of these behaviors alone is not enough to identify someone as a gang member.  There is no set number of behaviors that the person has to meet, only a subjective evaluation of all information known about an individual by a specially trained law enforcement officer can determine their status as a gang member or associate.


Gang Initiations

When someone decides to join a gang, they must first be initiated. There are several initiation methods used by different gangs involving physical and emotional abuse.
  1. "Beat In" or "Jump In" - To be jumped or clicked in to a gang means that a recruit will have to fight multiple members of the gang all at once. The fights can last anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes and they are violent, physical beatings.
  2. "Born In" - Recruits who have parents, siblings, or other relatives in a gang, or who have grown up inor around the gang, can be considered born in members. They have had so much exposure to the gang lifestyle, that it is expected that they will join the gang. They are usually not jumped or clicked in. These youth sometimes feel they have no choice but to join because parents and siblings put pressure on them and in many cases, encourage them to carry on the family's gang involvement.
  3. "Blessed In" - Being blessed in also has ties to growing up around a gang-involved family. The process seldom involves physical beatings and instead includes reciting gang related prayers, readings or traditions to initiate youth into the gang.
  4. "Sexed In" (female inductee having sex with multiple gang member in lieu of the "beat in") - Some gangs require the female to have sex with all the ranking members, while others require them to have sex with all the members who are present at the initiation. When a female chooses this path into the gang, she is usually not respected by its members. Girls can also choose to be jumped or clicked in. This usually gains them more respect and they are treated somewhat as equals with their male counterparts.
  5. "Crime In" - Armed robbery, Drive by shootings, Assaulting innocent victims, Raping innocent victims, Murder - the killing of an innocent victims, rival gang members or police.  - Gangs on occasion will mandate that a recruit commit a crime to show their loyalty towards the gang. This also tests whether the recruit is willing and able to commit crimes, and handle the consequences that come with it.
  6. "Courted In" - Due to a desirable criminal talent
  7. "Walked In" - Simply asked to join the gang

Warning Signs: 

  • Graffiti or tattoos depicting numbers, initials, street names, geographic areas, stars, pitchforks, three dots, crowns, etc.
  • Wearing clothing of all one color.
  • Wearing and/or displaying bandanas.
  • Use of an unfamiliar nickname/moniker.
  • Signs of drug and/or alcohol use.
  • Signs of physical abuse.
  • Truancy and/or poor grades at school.
  • Discipline problems at home and/or school.


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Warning Signs of Gang Involvement

  • Graffiti or tattoos depicting numbers, street names, geographic areas, stars, pitchforks, three dots, crowns.
  • Wearing clothing of all one color.
  • Wearing and/or displaying bandanas.
  • Use of an unfamiliar nickname.
  • Signs of drug/alcohol use.
  • Signs of physical abuse.
  • Truancy and/or poor grades at school.
  • Discipline problems at home and/or school.

Gang Myths & Facts
60% of gang members will be dead or in prison by age 20.
Source: Los Angeles Police Dept.