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Should Police Classify White Supremacy Groups As Gangs? UNCC Researcher Says Yes

The Charlottesville Protest in August 2017.

When you hear the term “street gang,” what images come to mind? There’s a good chance that your first reaction does not include white supremacist, "skinhead" or so-called "alt-right" groups. A pair of researchers argues such groups should be viewed as gangs – especially by policymakers and law enforcement agencies.

Doing so, the researchers say, could lead to better understandings of how "white power" groups operate – and help police deter violence involving group members. 

One of the researchers looking into this issue is Shannon Reid, a criminal justice professor at UNC Charlotte. She talked with “All Things Considered” host Mark Rumsey.

Mark Rumsey: So you explained about the ideology factor of making these definitions or classifications are there any other factors that you think have played into the tendency to not view white supremacy groups and their members as gangs?

Shannon Reid: Absolutely. I think there are two probably big components to why white power youth have not been included in the gang research and in the gang databases, things like that, law enforcement keeps.

The first is that there is a general myth about who gang members are — that they are people of color [and that] they're minorities. So, there's sometimes a lack of desire or belief that white youth are gang members. So there's sort of that common misperception of who gang members are, where they live [and] what they do. And so when law enforcement or other people come into contact with white power youth, there's a tendency to place them into subculture more where you think — oh, they're just sort of youth going through a phase. Therefore, the consequences of criminal justice contact are pushed through that lens versus when you have youth of color, they tend to be criminalized more aggressively.

And the second piece is that we tend to think about “skinheads” as being in their basements — trolls on the Internet [who are] active online and not visible in the streets. And as we've sort of seen more recently — but I think it's always been occurring — is that they are present and visible, but they are not as visible in media and other places. So, if you go to punk rock shows or you go other places, they are there. They're active. They are getting into fights. They are selling drugs.

And so, there's just sort of a misunderstanding about who gang members are and then who these white para youth are as well.

Rumsey: In terms of the criminal activity — including violence perpetrated at times by white supremacists — has it traditionally risen to the level across the board of things that have been typically associated with “street gangs” in terms of murders and kidnappings in some of the most violent crimes?

Reid: Absolutely. Again, there's sort of an overstatement of how often gang members —traditional street gang members — are involved in those sorts of crimes. The day-to-day street gang member is involved in sort of the same low-level, petty stuff that a lot of teenagers are involved with: stealing, selling drugs, fighting. When they sort of hit that peak of there being a murder or a serious violent incident that sort of characterizes everybody.

And when you have white power youth, the bulk of them are doing the same sort of stuff. If we think about groups like Public Enemy Number One, The Nazi Low Riders, Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, all of them have been involved in very serious violent crime and lower level, less serious crimes like drug selling. And it’s not as though drugs aren’t as serious, but it's not sort of hitting that panic level of oh my God, they're out there doing all of these sorts of violent things. The majority of both of these groups do a much greater volume of low-level things. It only escalates with a few of them.

Rumsey: Taking your premise then: If law enforcement agencies and others were to include white supremacist and related groups under the gang umbrella, what would police departments and police officers, for example, do differently?

Reid: So, I think it has a lot to do with how police officers interact with these members on the street. If you are a street gang member in Los Angeles, every time police contact you they are taking pictures of all your tattoos. They are talking about asking you who you hang out with and what group you're associated with. The hope is that all of that ends up in a gang database, which is used for intelligence purposes. [It’s] keeping track of who's part of these groups and who is sort of getting into trouble as a member of this group.

So, if you had that same dynamic for white power youth and you are keeping track of them in the same way, you have a better understanding of what is actually happening day-to-day on the street versus waiting for a more high profile event to sort of shock the community. 

Rumsey: Do you propose that would lead to a reduction in criminal activity?

Reid: I think it would at least give police officers and law enforcement and prosecutors’ offices more tools to suppress the more serious members. So, I don't want to say what we need to do is expand gang databases to have everybody in them. But rather, we need to be more even-handed about who we are including in those databases.

Rumsey: Shannon Reid is a criminal justice professor at UNC Charlotte. Reid, thanks for talking with us.

Reid: Thank you so much for having me.