Most of the gang activity in the metropolitan St. Louis area is fragmented and unorganized, though this does not necessarily make their activity less dangerous. There are about 80 African American gangs – with an estimated 5,000 persons claiming membership – whose territories change on a block-by-block basis.1 Law enforcement has detected some Hispanic and Bosnian gang activity in South City, and suspects some white supremacist activity in St. Louis County, MO and Madison County, IL.
While today’s gang violence is less organized than it may have been in the 1980s or mid-90s, a few factors make current gang activity a serious threat to the overall community and to the gang affiliates themselves. The average age of gang members is dropping. In St. Louis, the average gang member is about sixteen, and the estimated average age one joins a gang is eleven.2 Area gangs are reportedly recruiting younger members, and many have access to firearms. A veteran gang member reports that these younger members are more impulsive in their violence, and more likely to draw weapons on one another for petty arguments or insignificant offenses.1
Research at the national level echoes this trend. The National Gang Center reports that “youth” or “street” gangs (as opposed to terrorist groups, prison gangs and criminal gangs involved in organized crime) tend to be loosely structured, more transient in membership, and less stringent about codes of loyalty. The NGC also names the greater use of firearms one of the major differences between modern-day street gangs and those of the 1980s and 90s.
Children and youth are most likely to be involved in gangs to gain social acceptance among a group of peers, and to gain a sense of protection against the dangers of a high-crime environment, though in actuality, gang members are far more likely to be the victim of violent crime (NGC).
Local law enforcement agencies play an active roll in preventing youth gang activity. The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department runs two programs:
- G.R.E.A.T. Gang Resistance Education and Training Program. In 2008, the US Department of Justice gave $90,000 to a partnership between ARCHS and the SLMPD to begin a G.R.E.A.T. Program, similar to other programs operating in several major US cities. Operated in the schools and taught by law enforcement officers, the program seeks to prevent delinquency, youth violence and gang membership.
- Police Athletic League (PAL). The Police Athletic League (PAL) is a volunteer based program that operates in cooperation with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. PAL provides children in St. Louis with low-cost athletic, educational, and cultural programs. Each athletic team is sponsored by a volunteer police officer, and provides children with positive options for healthy free-time activities.
In May of 2010 the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis’s Public Safety Advisory Council partnered with the St. Louis Public School District to host the St. Louis City Youth Gang Summits for nearly 2,000 SLPS students.
2The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (2007). St. Louis Police Move Preventively to Curb Gang Participation. Accessed on July 28, 2010.