Mike's Thoughts


Behavioural Consultant Program Leader, South Area Behaviour Resource Team, Waterloo Regional District School Board, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

"Your presentation remained a lively lesson for all of us on the South Area Behaviour Resource Team as we clearly remembered the differences between respect and fear, and the illusion of protection and family belonging that entices youth into gangs. Because we deal daily with troubled kids your lessons and the great hand out has served us well in improving our own skills in this area. Your skills in reaching kids of different ages as well as professional staff with respect, clear headedness and with street wisdom impressed us all! Know you HAVE made a difference and that we are grateful."

Targeted Zero Tolerence; a successful model

By Mike Knox

 Traditional zero tolerance practices of police agencies are an effective short term method of regaining control of a neighborhood overrun with gang activity or crime.  However, it has limitations.  Among these limitations, particularly with sustained zero tolerance, is the policing agency runs the risk of alienating the community it strives to serve.  A more targeted and systematic approach to gangs could eliminate specific gangs from any community.


Historically, gangs were constructed around geographic areas, usually a low income neighborhood populated by minority individuals with little or no political power.  These West Side Story type gangs, which I refer to as Traditional Gangs, remain locked into their own neighborhoods by virtue of hostility which exists with gangs from neighboring communities.  While street gangs operated in this fashion general zero tolerance was a very effective tool in suppressing gang activity within a community.  Unfortunately, today’s gangs are no longer structuring themselves in this manner.

 Today’s successful gangs are able to establish trade agreements with like-minded or affiliated gangs throughout a city, state, interstate, even between countries.  Indeed, today’s gangs structure themselves in much the same way a Rotary or Kiwanis Club are structured.  I call these type of gangs Contemporary Gangs. 

The value of this type of organization allows gang members to leave neighborhoods where zero tolerance is being conducted.  Once away from the targeted neighborhood, gang members can engage in their normal criminal enterprise, often with the approval of the affiliated gang in that new neighborhood.  Essentially a trade agreement would exist which would cost the visiting gang a percentage of the profit or some type of rent paid to the “home gang.” 

Meanwhile the police are vigorously enforcing city codes, state statutes, and federal laws on the persons who live in the neighborhood, creating a “Robin Hood” effect.  That is to say the police eventually are perceived as the evil Sheriff of Nottingham whose troops are bothering the peaceful citizens of Sherwood Forest.  Eventually, the police will leave the neighborhood and the gang members will return to their home turf.   When this occurs the gang members presence indicates to the community that things are back to normal and they can relax.  Robin and his band of merrymen have returned to the forest and all is well. 

Targeting a neighborhood for traditional zero tolerance efforts by the police are defeated by the organization structure of the today’s street gangs.  Law enforcement must adapt to take advantage of the current gang structure.  I recommend what I call a targeted systematic zero tolerance program. 

Targeted systematic zero tolerance requires a gang unit using a three pronged approach.  The first prong is the intelligence-gathering arm of the unit.  These would be gang unit investigators who collect intelligence while in the course of conducting their normal investigation.  Officers populating this portion of the gang unit ideally should not be motivated by the desire to simply put bad guys in jail.  Rather, they should be motivated by a desire to actually reduce or eliminate gangs from the community and view intelligence as a method toward achieving that goal.  Useful intelligence concerning the membership, their habits, relationships with other gangs or individuals should be thoroughly collected.  Once a sufficient database exists to identify at least eighty-five percent of the membership of a particular gang is established the gang should be targeted for zero tolerance. 

The second prong of the gang unit would consist of officer primarily motivated by the desire to put bad guys in jail at every opportunity.  These aggressive enforcement oriented officers would be provided with a list of individuals, their addresses, hangouts, close associates, etcetera and instructed to try and catch these individuals committing any and all violations.  Once these gang members realize the neighborhood is being targeted they will attempt to leave the area. 

The intelligence portion of the gang unit would kick in with intelligence indicating where the targeted gang has fled.  We will call this original gang, gang “A.”  Once gang “A” has been relocated the enforcement team responds to the new area and continues to target gang “A.”  Additionally the enforcement officers are provided with the names addresses, hangouts, etcetera of the gang “B” and include gang “B” in their enforcement efforts. 

Gang B will likely kick out Gang A because they brought the police with them.  Gang A will have to seek refuge with another affiliated gang.  When they travel to yet another area, enforcement efforts cease on Gang B to follow Gang A to Gang C’s turf.  Once again Gang C is targeted along with Gang A.  This process continues until Gang A ceases to exist. 

Pick the next gang and begin the process again.  In time, a wedge will be driven between affiliated gangs who will not want to see each other.  As the pressure builds the membership of gangs will not want to be identified by the public or the police.  They will have difficulty recruiting among their peers because of the added police interest in their lives.  Reducing the ability to recruit produces smaller and smaller gangs until ultimately none exist. 

The general population does not experience an increase in normal enforcement practices, with this kind of program.  Most members of the community will appreciate the targeting of troublemakers while leaving those who are not a problem alone.  The potential then exists to develop intelligence sources within the community to further identify gang members who would ultimately be targeted.