Gang Involvement – Spotting the signs

As gang members, as young dudes in the streets, especially in L.A., we’re the effect of a situation. We didn’t wake up and create our own mind state and our environment; we adapted our survival instincts”

Nipsey Hussle (Rap artist and member of the Rollin 60’s Neighbourhood Crips Gang).

In July last year The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, published ‘The Children’s Commissioner’s Report on measuring the number of vulnerable children’. The aim of the report was to try and measure the scale of vulnerability amongst children in England, against a broad range of safeguarding indicators including, mental health, ‘high risk’ family situations, abuse, modern slavery and gang membership.

Within the foreword of the report Mrs Longfield was bold enough to admit that measuring the number of vulnerable children is an almost impossible task. As the Commissioner points out – define vulnerable! This very useful report provides some truly shocking figures without pretending to be anything other than an experimental and preliminary piece of work, aimed at scoping the scale of the problems in the UK. Because of the problems assessing vulnerability, the authors used a methodology based on a cohort of 32 well established groups. One of these groups was the number of ‘children in gangs’, defined in the report as children aged 10 to 18 who are members of a street gang’. The report writers drew their data from historical figures provided by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – ‘proportion of children aged 10 to 15 who were involved in gangs in 2013/14’. Based on the ONS stats the Commissioners report concluded that the proportion of children aged 10 to 18 years involved in gangs was currently 46,053.

I think most people would agree that this is a staggering figure even if it is a guestimate.  Within the report there was an acknowledgement that much of the data could well be underestimated. In truth no one knows exactly how many children are involved with or on the periphery of gangs. The ONS do not collate figures on the number of active gangs in the UK.

So, what makes a gang member? Young people can be considered by varying agencies as gang affiliated, gang involved, and gang associated. Then there are the actual gang members. What percentage of the 46,000 falls within the latter – active gang membership. How do we identify those children and young people that are more vulnerable and susceptible to becoming involved in gangs, to allow us to put in place interventions and divert them away from harm? How do we differentiate between the ‘wannabees’ and those that are becoming well immersed in gang culture?

There are numerous reasons that can drive a child away from what should be a normal childhood and push them towards gangs. However, in our view the overwhelming pull factor is the feeling that a young person “needs to belong”. Young people see gangs as their ‘family’, ‘crew’ ‘breddrin’, a place of acceptance and protection. As safeguarding professionals, we see this is the main challenge – giving young people a purpose and making them feel that they are valued members of our society.

Spotting the signs that a young person is being drawn into gang is a key element to prevention. Certain groups of children are more vulnerable and likely to be drawn into gang culture and professionals should be able to recognise when a young person is susceptible to risk of gang involvement. Many of the common indicators are also signs for other types of harmful activity, e.g. child sexual exploitation, county lines and missing. There are however, some significant indicators to identify where a young person may be vulnerable to being drawn into gang culture, and also signs that imply that a person is already involved with a gang. Below are some of those indicators and signs. In isolation, they may not raise obvious concerns that a child is involved in gang activity. However, professionals should use of a combination of both indicators/signs to ensure that they have the fullest picture of the child’s circumstances and therefore may make the best judgement in determining the risk.

What type of children are more likely to be recruited gangs?

Vulnerability Indicators:

Home Environment

  • a child who comes from an unstable family environment or where there is conflict between parents/siblings
  • has suffered neglect, maltreatment, physical or sexual abuse
  • absence of any parental attachment to the child and a lack of emotional care
  • whose parent(s) do not provide positive role model behaviours; are unable to communicate effectively with the child; provide poor discipline; do not give guidance or set proper boundaries
  • whose parents replace positive discipline with uncaring harsh or violent punishment
  • has a parent(s) who has alcohol, substance, drug or mental health issues
  • has witnessed domestic violence or violent conflict
  • comes from a broken home, is separated from a parent or has a parent in prison
  • lives with a gang member or who has family members involved in gang activity and criminality
  • is exposed to violent media


  • who has suffered traumatic life experiences
  • has a low academic achievement, significant levels of truancy and unauthorised absences; has a poor attendance record or is regularly excluded from school (school exclusion is a high vulnerability factor)
  • is within the care system; and/or is historically involved with social services
  • has a history of missing (research shows that the peak ages of running away and becoming involved with gangs are the same – 15 years)
  • feels socially isolated; is bullied or bully’s others
  • has learning disabilities or difficulties
  • has mental health issues, depression or behavioural problems
  • is vulnerable to peer pressure and intimidation
  • has poor self-esteem
  • has a lack of ethnic identity or feels socially isolated with no support
  • is unable to regulate own emotions and behaviour, displays anger and resentment towards society or demonstrates physical violence and aggression
  • has alcohol or drug issues


  • lives in an area with high gang activity
  • has become involved in antisocial and criminal behaviour early, which has led to persistent offending and juvenile convictions
  • associates with friends, peers who are involved in antisocial and aggressive behaviour
  • lives in an area where drugs are readily available; or is exposed to drug use
  • lives in areas with high levels of poverty, unemployment, social housing and crime
  • comes from communities who have experienced war situations prior to arrival in the UK or groups more likely to tolerate crime
  • has no positive role models in the community
  • comes from an area which lacks diversionary activities (e.g. youth services)
  • lacks aspirations, has little or no job prospects, is likely to become unemployed
  • attends a school where gang recruitment is known to occur
  • has no or little of access to productive social activities and opportunities
  • has disengaged from support services


What are some of the signs that a young person is already a gang member?

 Many gangs have characteristics that uniquely identify the gang and its members, but this is not always the case. Care must be taken when looking at the signs of gang membership, for certain traits associated with gangs are also now part of a broader youth culture. For example, many young people wear clothing that is often associated with a gang-style look, whilst many also use street slang which is now widely used and accepted into everyday language. Young people that dress or speak a certain way doesn’t necessarily indicate gang involvement. Professionals should strive to assemble an evidenced based assessment, built on a wide range of indicators. 

  • becomes secretive, becomes distant or has withdrawn from family
  • deteriorating behaviour; increased rule breaking, aggression, and threatening behaviour
  • has broken off relationships with old friends and has begun to associate with a new group of young people (may even display aggression towards previous friends)
  • drops out of positive activities
  • has a sudden loss of interest in school, begins to truant and has noticeable decline in academic achievement
  • stays out unusually late, begins to go missing or has unauthorised absences
  • has begun to talk about a particular individual or persons who they seem to hold in esteem and appears to be influencing them
  • noticeable changes in appearance. Begins to dress in a particular style or appears to be wearing ‘colours’ or a logo (specific uniform) similar to the group they associate with. Many gangs wear particular items of clothing that identify them collectively and set them apart from rival gangs. This wearing of clothes can be subtle and not noticeable e.g. the angle or how an item of clothing is worn, particular brands, a colour, symbols or jewellery
  • has multiple mobiles or regularly changes mobile devices
  • has started using new or unknown slang words or uses unusual hand signals to communicate with friends – some gangs have their own terminology and way of greeting each other, either verbally or by hand signs
  • has specific drawings or tags on everyday objects such as clothes, bedroom doors, furniture, walls, school books – graffiti is often used to mark a gang’s territory, their dominance of the area, having the added advantage of intimidating and causing fear in the people that live in the area
  • has unexplained money, expensive clothing, jewellery and possessions –certain jewellery, symbols and clothes can also be an indicator of membership or affiliation with a specific gang
  • has an unusual interest in gangster-influenced music, videos, movies, or websites that glorify weapons and gang culture
  • have images/videos of themselves ‘glorifying’ their gang membership – many gang members keep photographs featuring themselves and fellow gang members, often posing with cash, champagne and weapons. Where possible professionals should check a young person’s social media accounts or phones for images.
  • has obtained new tattoos, or purpose made scars or burn marks – specific tattoos, scar or burn patterns/designs can indicate gang affiliation
  • has a new nickname –gang members often (but not always) have a street name which is normally derived from a personal trait, their physical appearance or an action the may have carried out
  • is showing signs of drug use
  • is committing criminal offences – shoplifting, robbery, drugs (street robbery as a first-time entry into the criminal justice system can be a significant factor)
  • is getting into fights; has unexplained physical injuries and/or refuses to seek medical treatment
  • has started carrying a weapon
  • is concerned about the presence of unknown youths in the area, scared of or refuses to enter certain areas


“Even gang members imagine a future that doesn’t include gangs”

Greg Boyle – Jesuit Priest and founder of Homeboy Industries, gang rehabilitation and re-entry program.

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