Twenty years ago, the clues pointing to whether someone was a gang member tended to be unequivocal: Certain clothes, gestures, and esoteric language clearly revealed a person’s gang ties – to allies, to rivals and, intentionally or not, to police, says the San Diego Union Tribune. These days, the clues are less reliable. Some experts say law enforcement officials face a growing risk of misidentifying people as gang members as aspects of gang culture move into the mainstream.
Misidentification can have serious consequences in court, where gang-related crimes can carry stiffer sentences, and on the streets, where imitators could have violent encounters with actual gang members. “Kids act like gangsters who aren’t gangsters,” said Al Valdez, a sociology professor at the University of California Irvine who testified as an expert witness in a high-profile San Diego Superior Court case. Said Chief Deputy Public Defender Carl “Rusty” Arnesen: “The gang look is becoming more popular,” noting that the styles that attract attention range from baggy pants or shorts to tattoos and shaved heads. Valdez, a former gang investigator in Orange County, referred to the misidentifications as “false positives.” He said he believes an increased potential for false positives has made gang cases more complicated over the past five years.