When Does the 'Gang' Label Fit Teens?

A murder in Palo Alto, Calif., sparks renewed debate about whether suburban police departments are too quick to characterize immigrant youths as gang members

The arrest of six youths for a brutal, random murder here has stirred anew the controversy over what constitutes a gang.

Police in this affluent, placid community describe the suspects as members of a youth gang made up of Pacific Islanders who live in neighboring East Palo Alto. But whether the youths belong to the True Blue Crips or were unsupervised teenagers "just hanging out," as one community leader puts it, remains a matter of wide interpretation.

While some say police in suburban communities are too quick to slap on the gang label, the controversy has refocused attention on the problem of violent youth gangs and their presence in immigrant communities - a problem that has not diminished.

A national survey of law-enforcement agencies published in April found that numbers of youth gangs and gang members were higher than previously thought, and that gangs had spread into new localities, especially smaller cities and rural counties.

The survey, conducted in 1995 by the government-funded National Youth Gang Center, reported a total of 23,388 youth gangs and 664,906 members. By comparison, a 1991 law-enforcement survey estimated fewer than 5,000 gangs with about 250,000 members.

Youth gangs traditionally are organized around ethnicity and race, says John Moore, a senior research associate at the National Youth Gang Center. African-American and Hispanic gangs are the most numerous, but gang activity is also widely reported among recent immigrant groups such as Vietnamese, Laotians, and Chinese. Pacific Islanders, particularly Samoans, have formed gangs in California and Texas.

A community in flux

East Palo Alto, a small city of blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities set in the affluent sea of Silicon Valley, is home to a growing community of several thousand Pacific Islanders, mainly from Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga. They are a tightly knit group, organized around extended families and small churches, and considered hard-working and law abiding by local law enforcement.

East Palo Alto leaders and local law-enforcement officials say they do not believe the murder of Herbert Kay, a NASA scientist, was the work of a gang. The father of twins was beaten to death, a block away from the Palo Alto police station, while out on an evening walk.

Gangs were active in East Palo Alto earlier, but "I don't hear of any gangs anymore," says "Mama Dee" Uhila, a Samoan who has been working since the early 1990s with Islander youths. "I think they were just hanging out."

"To me, it was a random act, an aberration of what goes on," agrees Ken Hiraki, a gang specialist and a county juvenile probation officer based in East Palo Alto. While graffiti from the True Blue Crips appeared in the past, there is no report of any activity by the group since 1995, he says.

The California Youth Authority, the state's youth prison system, also has no record of that gang. The CYA keeps careful records of gang affiliations, their history, tattoos, graffiti, rivals, and other information that can verify the existence of a gang.

"We don't have any such gang that is verified as a criminal street gang," adds Sgt. Don O'Keefe of the San Mateo County Sheriffs Department's East Palo Alto office. "Some kids today claim they're Crips," he says. "Tomorrow they'll say they're Bloods. People like to walk the walk, but they're not criminal gang members."

But Palo Alto police, who have no history of gang activity in their jurisdiction, stand by their assertions. "They may not have been as active as others, but they are a gang," says Detective Jim Coffman, who is leading the investigation. "I share their frustration," he says of the Islander complaints about the gang label. "It is their kids out there, and they didn't know what they were doing. I think those kids had hoodwinked their family into thinking they were good kids."

To be sure, the Polynesian community in East Palo Alto has its troubles, among them alcohol and drug abuse, fistfights, and juvenile delinquency.

The youth problem stems in part from the gap between parents who hold to traditional Islander culture and kids who have tried to embrace what they see of American life, say Ms. Uhila and others.

"There is sort of a breakdown of values between parents and their children in the Islander community," observes Mr. Hiraki.

Adjusting to America

Islander culture emphasizes parents keeping strict control of their children, including the use of corporal punishment, says Hiraki. But Islander youths have found they can use American law and custom to block such control, including threatening to report their parents for abuse.

"These kids have more freedoms here," says Hiraki, "and sometimes they get a little crazy with that." Parents and juvenile authorities sometimes resort to sending the kids back to the islands.

"The main thing they are missing is the pride of being Polynesians," says Senter Uhila, who works with youths at a nearby high school. "A gang is the wrong way to get that."

Many of the youths arrested in the Kay murder were churchgoers, some held steady jobs, and several even helped out at Pacific Islanders Outreach, a literacy center which Ms. Uhila converted from a Polynesian restaurant. "At this minute, ... I still cannot comprehend what triggered them to snap," she says.

The incident prompted an outpouring of grief and shame among the Islanders: Many, young people as well as parents of some of the arrested youths, attended a prayer vigil for the victim.


* Youth gangs exist in all 50 states, according to a national survey of law-enforcement officers. But 10 states have the greatest number of gangs (in order).

1. California

2. Texas

3. Illinois

4. Colorado

5. Arizona

6. Florida

7. Missouri

8. Washington

9. Oregon

10. Utah

Source: National Youth Gang Center

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