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'Gang-related': a controversial term with varying definitions

In a recent training session for gang officers, LAPD Deputy Chief Kirk Albanese told a class from across the county that more than half of all killings in the city are gang-related.

But that term — "gang-related" — can have varying meanings. And it has long been controversial.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles Police Department use a member-based approach, the agencies said. Such an approach classifies a homicide as gang-related if the victim or the assailant is known to be a gang member.

In some cases, a crime can be classified as gang-related if it occurs in a neighborhood where there's an ongoing rivalry, said Lt. John Tippet of the LAPD's South Bureau, which handles about 40% of the homicides in the city.

Nationally, there are two common definitions, according to the National Gang Center, a project funded by the U.S. Justice Department and the Bureau of Justice Assistance that studies gang activity. One is the member-based approach. Another approach, which is less common, considers whether the crime was committed to benefit a gang.

The National Gang Center has found that although cities across the U.S. are experiencing some of their lowest numbers of homicides in decades, the percentage of homicides classified as "gang-related" remains unchanged or has risen in the same cities. But firm national statistics based on a single definition are nonexistent, the center notes.

Locally, in areas patrolled by the Sheriff's Department, 60% of the killings in 2014 were gang-related, down from 69% from last year, according to the department.

The LAPD classified 55% of this year's homicides as gang-related. Figures for 2013 were not immediately available.

The term "gang-related" is controversial, a longtime gang-intervention worker said, because in some communities, you can be seen as being a gang member simply for living in the neighborhood.

Ben "Taco" Owens said that not all crimes involving a gang member — a fatal robbery, for example — should be classified as gang-related and believes that the classification is overused.

"Every drive-by shooting isn't a gang-related drive-by," he said.

Wes McBride, the executive director of the California Gang Investigator's Assn., acknowledged that the term can be controversial because of political and philosophical differences but said "it's better to count it."

"If gang members weren't gang members, chances are they wouldn't be doing that crime," he said.

Although homicides are down locally, McBride said, "gangsters still fight."

"They still kill more than any other identified entity in the nation," he said.

-- Nicole Santa Cruz

Photo: LAPD officers examine evidence after a shooting in South L.A. in August. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

This post has been updated to clarify that homicides handled by the Sheriff's Department are down by 9 percentage points from last year.

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