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Important New Research Shows It's Retaliation -- Not Drugs -- Driving Gang-Related Violence

The popular image of street gang violence in the US as being "drug-related" is largely mistaken, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a new report.
 
 
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The popular image of street gang violence in the US as being "drug-related," is largely mistaken, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in  a report released last Thursday. Other factors, particularly retaliation for ongoing gang violence, are more likely to be at play, the report said in what is the first study based on the CDC's  National Violent Death Reporting System.

The CDC looked at data from 2003 through 2008 to study gang-related killings in 17 states and found the highest rates in five cities: Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Oakland, California, Newark New Jersey, and Oklahoma City.  Those cities had 856 gang-related homicides and 2,077 non-gang killings during the period in question.

In Los Angeles and Long Beach, less than 5% of all killings were related to known drug trafficking or use, while in Oakland, only 12.5% of gang killings involved drugs. In Newark, 20% of gang killings involved drugs, while Oklahoma City came in highest with 25.4%.

The numbers show that even in the city with the highest percentage of gang killings blamed on the drug trade or drug use, only about one-quarter of gang killing revolved around drugs. The numbers are similar for non-gang homicides. "Drug-related" killings accounted for little more than one-fifth of all homicides at most, again in Oklahoma City, at 22.8%, but only 16.5% in Oakland, 6% in Newark, and less than 5% in Los Angeles and Long Beach.

"The public often has viewed gangs, drug trade/use, crime, and homicides as interconnected factors; however, studies have shown little connection between gang homicides and drug trade/use and crime," the report's authors wrote in an editorial note. "Gangs and gang members are involved in a variety of high-risk behaviors that sometimes include drug and crime involvement, but gang-related homicides usually are attributed to other circumstances…. Overall, these findings support a view of gang homicides as retaliatory violence. These incidents most often result when contentious gang members pass each other in public places and a conflict quickly escalates into homicide with the use of firearms and drive-by shootings."

The findings could be important for policymakers as they attempt to grapple with the causes of gang violence and how to prevent it. The report suggested concentrating on preventing kids from joining gangs in the first place and helping at risk kids deal with conflict resolution.

"Violence -- including gang homicides -- is a significant public health problem," Linda Degutis, director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, said in a prepared statement. "Investing in early prevention pays off in the long run. It helps youth learn how to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence and keeps them connected to their families, schools and communities, and from joining gangs in the first place."

Phillip Smith is an editor at DRCNet.