Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.



Identifying gangs, their members no easy job for police

FARGO -- The Metro Area Street Crimes Unit, recently formed to quash what police describe as an upsurge in gang activity here, is faced with the sometimes tricky task of determining what is a gang and who is a gangster.

FARGO -- The Metro Area Street Crimes Unit, recently formed to quash what police describe as an upsurge in gang activity here, is faced with the sometimes tricky task of determining what is a gang and who is a gangster.

“Gang members aren’t calling themselves gangs anymore,” said Fargo police Lt. Ross Renner, who leads the unit. “Because, of course, being labeled as a gang brings undue attention.”

Instead, street gangs often style themselves as crews, cliques or squads, Renner said. In Fargo, there’s the Lic Squad, which insists it’s a rap group, while police say the squad, with 20 confirmed members, is a gang.

Conflicting statements like these prompt the question: What defines a gang?

There’s no easy answer because, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, there’s no universally accepted definition.


The word can be applied interchangeably to a range of criminal groups, from organized syndicates and outlaw motorcycle gangs to prison gangs mainstream use, the term “gang” typically refers to a gang of young people, the Justice Department says.

The federal government and many states, including North Dakota and Minnesota, have legal definitions of what constitutes a gang. Generally, these definitions say a gang is three or more people involved in a pattern of crime. But that’s not the only criteria.

For instance, the federal definition states a gang employs “violence or intimidation to further its criminal objectives” and commits “crimes to enhance or preserve the association’s power, reputation or economic resources.” A gang also uses identifiers like a common name, hand sign, clothing or tattoo, according to the federal definition.

Gang arrests

Last fall, a dispute between the Lic Squad and the Fast Money Boys, a local gang with eight confirmed members, turned violent when a mobile home in the Countryside Trailer Court was set afire and a pet pit bull was stabbed to death, according to police.

It was one in a series of gang-related incidents, including drive-by shootings, that led to last month’s creation of the street crimes unit, which is staffed by a handful of officers from local agencies, police said.

Since March 2014, area officers have arrested at least 51 people who police consider to be gang members or their regular associates. Those 51 were arrested for a variety of offenses, including burglary, domestic violence, driving under suspension, carrying a concealed weapon, selling pot, resisting an officer and shoplifting, according to a list released by the street crimes unit.

The list names 19 gangs, but police believe only about 10 gangs actually operate in the Fargo-Moorhead area.


It’s unclear how many people on the list are still active gang members. Fourteen of them are age 30 or older, with the oldest being 50 years old.

Nineteen of those arrested were juveniles, and their gang affiliations were not disclosed. Of the 32 adults arrested, two were Fast Money Boys, and three belonged to the Lic Squad, according to the list.

Lic Squad member Marvin Berry, a Fargo South High School student, has told The Forum that his group consists of rap artists who weren’t involved in the Countryside feud or other criminal activity.

“It makes us feel like we have to move somewhere else,” he said. “Is it the way we present ourselves, the way we dress?”

‘The baddest actor’

Much of what the street crimes unit does involves gathering intelligence on gangs through surveillance or informants. When the unit learns that someone is a gang member or associate, that person’s name is entered into a regional gang database shared with other law enforcement agencies, Renner said.

Such databases have been criticized, by groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, because of the potential for innocent people – particularly black, Latino and low-income youths – to be mistakenly pegged as gang members, raising the possibility of racial profiling by police.

In the cases of the Lic Squad and Fast Money Boys, many of their members are black. To avoid discrimination, police say, the street crimes unit uses federal criteria to establish who’s a gang member.


“It’s not just up to me or you (to) say, ‘He looks like one, so he is one,’ ”

said an officer in the unit, who asked not to be named because he works undercover.

To label someone as a gang member, police need at least two criteria, which can include committing gang crimes, displaying gang insignia, frequenting a gang’s turf or acknowledging gang membership. Making these determinations has become more difficult because gangs don’t show their colors as prominently as they did in the 1990s, when gang activity last erupted in the metro area, police said.

Kevin Thompson, a criminal justice professor at North Dakota State University, said the stakes are high when police are deciding who is and isn’t a gang member.

“If you over-identify a kid as a gang member and he’s not, then that might chase him to a gang for protection. If you under-identify them, then that’s a problem as well,” Thompson said.

George Knox, director of the National Gang Crime Research Center in Illinois, said police will sometimes classify a gang’s threat level on a scale of one to four, with four being the most dangerous. Similarly, police in some jurisdictions use a point system, based on factors predictive of gang membership, to calculate the risk a gangster poses to the community.

“It’s a way to triage. It’s a way to say, well, who is the baddest actor we’ve got here?” Knox said.

The street crimes unit doesn’t use a point system, though it does rely on the intelligence it’s gathered, along with criminal records, to deduce who’s a violent gangster and who’s a wannabe.


But even wannabes concern Renner.

“If you’re a wannabe, that tells me that you’re acting like people who are” gang members, he said. “We’re not real interested in waiting until they decide to prove that they are.”

What To Read Next
Get Local