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Establishment of a Police Gang Unit: An Examination of Organization and Environmental Factors

NCJ Number
Criminology Volume: 39 Issue: 1 Dated: February 2001 Pages: 37-73
Date Published
February 2001
37 pages

This study examined the organizational and environmental factors that shaped a midwestern police departments' response to its community's gang problem and creation of a specialized police gang unit. The study used a conceptual framework grounded in institutional theory and added to research previously conducted on police response to gangs.


Although researchers had begun to document programs and activities performed by police gang units, little research had been done examining why police gang units were created and why they responded to local gang problems in the way they had over the past 10 years. The principal goal of this study was to describe how one police agency's gang unit was created and examine the forces that drove the department to establish the gang unit. In addition, the study ascertained the utility of the institutional theory framework. The second goal examined how these forces influenced the gang unit's response to the community's gang problem; to illustrate how the gang unit's response was affected by the factors that led to the unit's creation. The midwestern community's economic base consisted of light manufacturing, service industries, and agricultural-related business. The study used a multi-methodological research design that brought together multiple sources of data focused on a single point to explain and corroborate issues of question. Most of the fieldwork was done with gang unit officers, as well as in-depth interviews with the officers to supplement the observations. Results lend support for the institutional perspective. The data suggested that the gang unit was created as a consequence of pressures placed on the police department from powerful elements within the community. Once created, the gang unit's response to the gang problem was mainly driven by its need to achieve and maintain legitimacy among various stakeholders in their environment. A common theme was that the gang unit's response was extremely susceptible to coercive pressures placed on it by its institutional environment making its organizational structure and operational activities largely a function of ceremony as opposed to acting in a rational or effective manner. The data also illustrated that for the gang unit to achieve and maintain legitimacy it had to adhere to and demonstrate a commitment to the professional, political, and social beliefs of the officers in the police department. The police response to gangs must be understood in the context of police culture. The findings call into question the state of specialized police units and challenge the notion that specialized police units increase technical efficiency and effectiveness. Future research recommends the impact of internal and external forces on police response to gangs and how the forces are geographically and temporally dependent be examined. References

Date Published: February 1, 2001