We had the great privilege of talking with Gary Killam, President of the Florida Gang Investigators Association and experienced gang investigator from the state of Florida. President Killam shares his advice on how to improve your chances of becoming a gang investigator and great insights into what it is like to work in gang investigation.
Can you tell us how you got started in law enforcement and how you moved into a position as a gang investigator?
I have always wanted to be a police officer for as long as I can remember. I went to the academy and became an officer in 1980 and in 1986 I applied to criminal investigations as a general detective. While I was there working some of the cases we noticed there was a lot of gang activity. At the time in Broward County there was no talk of street gangs because we really didn’t have them. So I started collecting data, tracking the gangs, documenting the gangs, and based on the activity we were seeing and some of the people I was interviewing, I realized that we were starting to have a gang problem that was growing in our city. So I approached my boss and presented the documentation and said “I think we have a problem brewing. What are your thoughts on it?”. My boss said “You’re right, it looks like we have some issues brewing and I want you look into further”. So my responsibilities went from a general detective to a gang investigator at that time. As we continued to look into the problem, we realized the problem was bigger than we ever thought. The gangs had come into our area and were there to stay and the problem had evolved. Around 1990-91 we created what we called the multi-agency gang task force to bring all the agencies together so we could cross jurisdictional boundaries and work together to solve problems and that was an effective program that we started. Then the county partnered with Miami-Dade County, and that worked pretty well for us. So that’s how I got started working in gangs.
What is a typical career path for a new police officer who wants to become a gang investigator?
My recommendation is, based on what I’ve seen in my 30 years, is that a young person would need to start out as an officer and most agencies are the same – you have to start out as a patrolman. As a patrolman, learn as much as you can about what’s going on in your division with the gangs. What gangs are there, what type of gang members you have, and what type of crimes they are involved in, because as a patrol officer, gang detectives depend on you a lot to provide street information because gang detectives tend to get busy on cases and working. So what I would always look at as a gang detective is which officer is really out there working to provide some good information to us. That is someone I’d like to start working with and molding and bringing into the gang unit as an investigator because they show a strong interest. So a young officer getting in there needs to learn as much as they can, attend some schools, work with the gang guys – talk to them, say “What can I do to help? What kind of information can I provide you as an officer that would help you with your cases and what you’re doing everyday?”. Maybe even volunteer to come out and work operations with them so the guys get to know you and know your interest. Progression usually requires you to work the road and it could be anywhere from 2-5 years depending on the agency before they are eligible to go into investigations. Get training as early as you can to show the interest. Once you have that and when there is an opening, you definitely want to apply.
What are some common requirements for becoming a gang investigator?
One of the things we look at as an administrator is what has the officer done to advance his knowledge in the field of gangs. When we hire investigators there’s a process. You have to apply, and then we do interviews. Based on those interviews we then rank the officers who are applying. So what I’m going to look at as an evaluator is what has the officer done. Have they attended any conferences or have they obtained any gang training that would make them a specialist in that area? Unfortunately, a lot of young policemen don’t go get the training. They wait and say “When I get in I’ll get trained”. Well…what I’m looking for as an administrator is who is taking the initiative to get the training in advance. And that training can really help you as a road officer. So that is an important aspect if a young officer want to get into working gangs. Get as much training and knowledge as you can. Most of the states, have gang associations like the Florida Gang Investigators Association. Become a member, most of them are very inexpensive but you can gain knowledge, information, and training through those associations. They are also great resources for contacts. So if the officers do that and attend some local training, it puts them step above others. I do strongly recommend, whether to be a police officer or a detective, that they go to college today. College is such a critical aspect to becoming a police officer. When I started, college wasn’t important at all. I started with an associate’s degree and I realized that if I wanted to work my way through the ranks I had to get a better education. I went back for a bachelor’s and then back for a master’s degree and realized that law enforcement is about being a lifelong learner and you have to continue to educate yourself if you’re going to stay up in that field.
Would you recommend a specific degree for aspiring gang investigators?
There is not necessarily a specific degree but criminal justice is a plus. There are some colleges that are offering an associate’s degree in gangs. There are some of the 4-year universities that are offering specific coursework in gangs. Nova Southeastern has a gang class in their bachelor’s of criminal justice. St. Petersburg College has a two-year degree program in gangs. Those are the ones I’m aware of. There are other colleges and universities out there that have some of those courses that are specific to gang investigation. But I will tell you this, I don’t think it is necessary to become a gang officer to have a degree in that area – you could have a degree is sociology. Any college degree can be a benefit. What I think is more important if you want to become a gang investigator is coming into law enforcement with a college degree or military background or both. Once you become a police officer, get the training that is specific to your area dealing with gangs. That’s what’s going to give you that little step ahead. The way we conduct our interviews and selection process is we have a ranking scale. If you have a two-year degree you have so many points. If you have a four-year degree or above you have so many points. If you attended training classes that was specific to gang investigation you get points. If you had worked with the gang unit you get points. So college is important for selection into criminal investigation, not specifically for gang investigation itself. The type of degree is not as important as having college experience.
How frequently are positions available for an officer to join a gang unit in your experience?
It depends because each agency is different. You may have more frequent openings in California or Austin, Texas. Unfortunately what we have seen in agencies is budget cuts that have impacted some of the gang units, and specialty units in general, not just gang units. With budget cuts, a lot of times what happens with gang units is that they tend to get moved into general investigations where those investigators now have to do both. It is a little tough as far as how many positions come open. Now in some areas, what has happened over the years is all of a sudden you have a rash of shootings that occur and your agency might say we need to bring back the gang units or we need to add some more guys to the gang unit and they will do that. Most guys that get into the gang unit tend to stay for a while – we like the gang guys to stay 2-4 years because you get to know the gang members on the streets. And to be effective you need good communication skills so you can work the streets and work those organizations. It’s really hard to say how frequently. Down in South Florida, you may get 3 or 4 a year. Some guys may get in and say you know I really don’t like this because it’s not a Monday through Friday 9 to 5 job. Gang members sleep during the day in most cases, so you’re going to work afternoons, nights, and weekends. Some guys don’t like that.
What are some of the greatest misconceptions about gang investigation that are created by television or movies?
From my experience, the misconception is you solve crimes in an hour and you solve these gang related shootings very quickly. There was an interesting one on the Closer where a guy walks up to a wall, reads it, and right away knows who committed the murder. No, that’s not realistic. Also, that it’s non stop action. Not necessarily true, because you have to work and you have to conduct investigations. A homicide might take you several months and you may never solve it. It is a lot of leg work, a lot of interviews, and it’s not just running with your lights and sirens on chasing guys. There is some of that, but it is a big misconception that young officers have coming in that there is non-stop action chasing these gang members. Well that is not the reality of it. I spend a lot of time working with these guys, going to the corner where they’re hanging out, or going to their neighborhoods, talking with them, meeting with them, finding out what’s going on with them, and what’s going on with gang rivalries. That’s all part of working in a gang unit – developing rapport through these individuals, and hopefully developing some intelligence to make an arrest.
What are some of the greatest challenges faced by gang investigators in your experience?
Officer safety is always this biggest. We’ve lost several officers this year that were tied to gang members killing them. That’s a big challenge for guys to not let your guard down. Some officers figure they know everybody but you’re dealing with gang members and they’re still a criminal element. You always have to be on your A game. Always ready to react and always have your eyes open so you know what’s going on. It might not be the gang you’re dealing with, you might become a victim of a drive by shooting of a rival gang. So it’s being aware all the time about your surroundings as a gang officer. A danger is falling victim to trusting these guys too much, and believing some of the lies they tell you. Another danger is being around that lifestyle and working an investigation so long that gang investigators might start acting like gang members and that is a very dangerous mistake because if you cross the line you’re going to go to jail.
What aspects of working in gang investigation to you enjoy the most?
One of the great things about working gangs that I enjoy is that you work everything from criminal mischief to homicide. It depends on your agency, but for my agency the gang investigator got to do it all, so I one day I might be working criminal mischief and homicide the next day. The other part I really enjoy is that you spend a lot of time on the streets. While some of the general investigators and detectives might spend more time at the desk, doing followups and phone calls, gang officers do spend a fair amount of time on the streets talking to kids. I really enjoy getting on the streets and working with these guys and help them get out because it is not about just putting them in jail. You can’t arrest your way out of a gang problem but if you can help a kid make a difference and turnaround it’s a great thing. I had a guy come up to me and ask me if I remember him and unfortunately no I didn’t because I deal with so many people. He introduced me to his wife and his little boy and said “Hey, I want to thank you because of you, I got a job at Florida Power and Light, this is my family, I’m doing the right thing”. That’s what it’s about too. Putting the bad guys in jail and helping those who are not bad guys make a change in their life to be a good member of society and that’s really an exciting thing.
Is there any additional advice you would you give to an individual who is planning to become a police officer and would some day like to become a gang investigator?
One of the biggest skills I see lacking in young people wanting to get into law enforcement is their communication skills. If you’re going to get into the field of law enforcement, you need to talk to anybody, anytime, at any place. I see young officers coming in who are very uncomfortable talking to people and this is a people business. You have to have great communication skills. On the college side, there are some great programs under communications, to become good at it. If you’re a good communicator, no matter what job you do in law enforcement, you’re going to be very successful.