Answer: The FBI reports that there are more than 33,000 street gangs with an estimated 1.4 million members across the country.3 Criminal gangs are found in every area of the country, though the Great Lakes and West regions have the highest numbers of gang members.3,4
Police gang units must know and stay current on the affiliations and activities of gangs that have a presence within their jurisdictions. Gangs are insular communities and are protective of information and members. Even community members who are not affiliated with criminal activities will often be intimidated by gang members into maintaining silence about gang activities. As a result, it takes a great deal of fieldwork to develop contacts within gangs and the community and develop the trust required to control crime associated with gangs. Police officers generally earn promotions to the position of gang investigator. Seasoned gang detectives may advance to supervisory or administrative positions, following the same paramilitary rank advancements as regular police officers.
Career Description, Duties and Common Tasks
Gang investigators are typically law enforcement professionals who have been specially trained to address the problems of gang activity within their jurisdictions. Gang detectives:
- Build relationships with gang and community members
- Develop knowledge on gangs and gang members
- Investigate criminal cases involving gang members
- Testify in court
- Visit schools and community events to educate students about the negative impacts and consequences of joining gangs
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Steps for Becoming a Gang Investigator
Prospective gang detectives will benefit from having experience as a police officer, corrections officer, parole officer, or probation officer prior to moving into a gang unit. Law enforcement experience is usually required, but requirements will vary based on the job. Though a degree may not be required, it helps if applicants possess a bachelor’s degree in criminology, sociology, or law enforcement.
Prospective gang detectives should also be aware that few police departments will hire gang control officers who have visible tattoos, even if those tattoos would be covered by the standard uniform. Individuals with visible tattoos or tattoos on any area of the body that suggest any kind of organizational affiliation, whether gang or otherwise, intentionally or otherwise, will likely need to have such a marking professionally removed before an offer of employment will be made.
In order to become a gang investigator, you should expect a process similar to the following:
- Find and apply to an open gang investigator position.
- Successfully complete the application process.
- Submit to an extensive background investigation.
- Be interviewed.
- Attend and pass the police officer training academy, which generally lasts a minimum of a few months
- Be hired as a gang detective.
- Be trained on the job.
Gang Investigator Job Training
Gang investigators must learn the cultural and symbolic uses of language by the gang with which they will be working and must develop an intimate knowledge of gang disputes and territories. Gangs often communicate using pictures, acronyms, and even sign language, all of which a gang investigator must learn to effectively communicate with (and investigate) gang members. Investigators create dossiers by interviewing and developing relationships with gang members. On-the-job training and ongoing training are essential. Departments involved in countering gang activity often encourage officers to attend training seminars and conferences held by anti-gang specialist organizations such as the National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations or its individual branches.
Other Helpful Skills and Experience
Gang investigators must be able to work well under pressure, be discreet, and effectively communicate with a diverse population. Successful candidates typically have prior law enforcement experience or have experience in corrections, parole, or probation.
Possible Job Titles for This Career
- Gang Detective
- Gang Investigator
Gang Investigator Salary and Outlook
While the reality is unfortunate, police agencies will always need skilled investigators to deal with criminal activity related to gangs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects job growth of 7% from 2016 to 2026 for police and detectives.1 Salaries vary depending on position but the pay in this field is typically commensurate with education, rank, and time-in-service. According to the BLS, detectives and criminal investigators earned an average annual salary of $85,020 as of 2017.2
Frequently Asked Questions
How big of a problem are gangs in the United States?
How many years of law enforcement experience is necessary before being promoted to gang detective?
Answer: Prospective investigators should be prepared to work as a police officer, usually a patrol officer, for between two and five years before becoming eligible to advance to the gang investigations unit.
How dangerous is it to work as a gang investigator?
Answer: As with any position in law enforcement, gang detectives face numerous dangers, from having their identity discovered by the gang they’re infiltrating to attacks from rival gang members. As a result, gang investigators must be on guard and aware of their surroundings at all times.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation: The FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center featuring links, resources, and educational materials.
- National Alliance of Gang Investigators Association: A national organization dedicated to educating the public about gang violence and to preventing gang violence.
- National Gang Center: An educational and training resource for law enforcement officers and gang investigators.
- Police Magazine: The Gang Investigator’s Library: A listing of resources for gang investigators.
Gang Investigator Interviews
- Interview with Gary Killam, President of the Florida Gang Investigators Association
- Interview with Ron Hampton, President of the East Coast Gang Investigators Association
- Interview with Chuck Schoville, President of the Arizona Gang Investigators Association
- Interview with Tim Hock, President of the Oklahoma Gang Investigators Association
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Police and Detectives: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/Protective-Service/Police-and-detectives.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages May 2015, Detectives and Criminal Investigators: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes333021.htm
3. Federal Bureau of Investigation 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment: https://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/2011-national-gang-threat-assessment
4. Federal Bureau of Investigation, What We Investigate: Gangs: https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/violent-crime/gangs
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