I have been fortunate to conduct gang training throughout the United States on a continuous basis since 1992. This includes a Basic Gangs course and an Advanced Gang Investigations course. But I seem to fool quite a few people when throughout the course of the training, which lasts anywhere from two to five days, I talk about what you can do to help gang members who are calling out for help.
Law enforcement has the unique ability to gauge human beings in a nanosecond. This special skill works in many phases for police officers, deputy sheriffs, state police, correctional officers, and all facets of the criminal justice spectrum. But this skill set is not always put to use, because, “Why would we want to help gang members?” Gang members are the scourge of society; they hate police. That is often true, but there are many who join gangs who desperately want out, and the one person they see more than anyone other than their own gang members, is a police officer.
Why do I feel passionately about helping? It is our job! Growing up in Chicago, Illinois, in the late 1950s to middle 1960s was no picnic. I grew up with and around gang members. Many were my friends, and many were my enemies. I grew up disliking police. In fact when the Chicago Police Department officers decided to run us off street corners, they would deposit me at home and smile when they delivered me to my father; a fate worse than death!
In 1963 I got into a fight with James Alexander, who was a Blackstone Ranger. I knew James well, and because of my reputation for fighting, he decided to pull out a knife. I took the knife from him and tried to stab him and missed, the knife sticking in the ground. When the neighbors pulled me off him, the police came to my house. Two Chicago Police youth officers, Jackie Thomas and Charles Inge challenged me to come to the Hyde Park YMCA. I didn’t know why until my father took me, and I saw they were black belts in Judo. My life changed. Several things were learned from meeting them. They made me a better Judo player and person; secondly, I learned police officers are really human beings. Thirdly, I majored in Police Science (Criminal Justice today), and began my law enforcement career in 1969, because I wanted to be like them; I wanted to give back.
Throughout my career I have tried to give back. I have taken gang members into my Judo clubs in Chicago (IL) and Prince George’s County (MD). I have coached kids who joined my baseball teams, and told them, “It’s either the bandanna or the baseball.” Most chose the baseball. I have and still mentor former gang members. But this is not about me. It’s about them.
Criminal justice professionals have an obligation to serve and protect, which includes reaching out if the opportunity presents itself. Most gang members lack “life skills,” which need to be given to them. Leadership skills are something that criminal justice professionals possess, but going that extra mile and turning those qualities into a positive outcome for a gang member or at-risk youth is awesome!
When we talk about gang prevention, the first topic is violence. I have always felt strongly about community oriented policing and exercising community building. The community needs to see police officers outside their cruisers; they need to see police officers talk and feel comfortable within their own environment. Police explorer programs are a great conduit to show the youth of America how police departments work and how police officers tick. In the 1990s, I helped launch the police explorer program in Prince George’s County (MD) with Captain W. Grady Baker. Because of the dedication of numerous officers, many youth who would have joined gangs, gone to jail, or been killed are now police officers.
There are so many ways we can help. Many criminal justice professionals were and remain athletes. Take your skills and teach or coach. Many are parents; take your skills as a parent and show you care.
This is not about saving the world, but William Bratton, former Chief LAPD said, “You can’t always arrest your way out of a gang!”
Tony Avendorph retired in 2009 after 40 years in law enforcement, serving with the Illinois Department of Corrections, Los Angeles (CA) County Sheriff's Department, and Prince George's County Police Department (MD). Tony is the President of Tony Avendorph Associates, LLC.
Tony Avendorph, President