AU S T RALIAN I N S T I T U T E
Police and Community
Responses to Youth Gangs
Although there are no national data on youth gangs in Australia there is a perception that youth gangs are an emerging problem. This paper draws largely on overseas attempts to deal with gang related activity and the extent to which they have been successful. The most successful interventions have some combination of coercive and developmental measures.
A key issue for both policy makers and practitioners is the weight given to particular measures within the context of an overall strategy. While for tactical purposes, coercive force may occasionally be necessary, positive approaches to gang issues also require developmental strategies and active community involvement.
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There is a widespread public perception that ‘youth gangs’ are a major and growing problem in Australia. This perception is strengthened by media images of youth violence and anti-social youth group behaviour (Collins et al. 2000; Sercombe 1999). The perception is further ‘confirmed’ in frequent negative pronouncements by politicians about particular youth groups, and by the introduction of measures such as anti-weapons legislation
There is very little in the way of empirical data that tell us how many ‘gangs’ actually exist, who belongs to them, and what they do. Research undertaken in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide
(White et al. 1999; Collins et al. 2000; Foote 1993) has provided some indication of the social dynamics of youth group formation, and the tensions and inequities associated with social marginalisation. Current research by members of the OzGang Research Network, of which the author is a member, will hopefully provide further qualitative and quantitative information about diverse youth group formations in the future.
Regardless of the ‘realities’ and ‘myths’ surrounding youth gangs in Australia today, three intervention issues nevertheless stand out. First, the perceptions that youth gangs exist and are a danger to the community will almost inevitably generate action on the part of authorities, regardless of what is happening at the grassroots level. Secondly, analysis suggests that the political and economic conditions for potential growth in gang-related behaviour presently exist, and that action is required now in order to forestall future problems (White et al. 1999; White 2002). Thirdly, the discourses of ‘gang’ have largely been racialised in most places around Australia, with ethnic minority youth the main subjects of such public discourses (Collins et al. 2000; Poynting, Noble & Tabar 2001;
White et al. 1999). These observations require that we be sensitive to the implicit and explicit social issues that inevitably accompany any consideration of police and community responses to gang-related behaviour.
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AUSTRALIAN INSTITUTE OF CRIMINOLOGY
The question is not whether anti-gang strategies should be developed (given that this is already occurring); rather, what kinds of strategies look most promising and least harmful from the point of view of overall (and specific) community relations and youth rights.
A major source of consternation about young people, and the key site where gang activity and youth group formations occur, is the street.
Dealing with gang formations and gang-related behaviour has generally involved a combination of coercive and developmental approaches. These are used in varying ways, with differing emphasis and under changing