This article describes the difficulty in defining gangs and the perception of them as a problem in nonmetropolitan areas.
Street gangs in the United States have traditionally been regarded as urban phenomena. Recent surveys have indicated that gang problems are occurring in communities of all sizes and locations, although they are still most heavily concentrated in medium and large cities. Because there are not routinely collected statistics on gangs, almost all of the information about the growth of gangs is derived from questionnaire surveys of police agencies. Part of the gang measurement problem is that different police agencies do not keep records in the same way. Another problem is that there is no widely agreed upon criteria for operationally defining a gang. This study approached the issue by viewing the gang as a social construct. It was based on a telephone survey of municipal and county police agencies in nonmetropolitan counties in the United States. To be included, the agency had to have reported the presence of a gang in the 1997 National Youth Gang Survey (NYGS). Results suggest that gangs have been reported to be present in some rural communities but that the problem is not universal, nor is it always serious and persistent. The terms in which police agencies defined gang activities and problems varied widely from one jurisdiction to another. Because the number of gangs in any single rural jurisdiction is small and the number of members in any single gang is also small, nonmetropolitan gangs are often short-lived. The data suggest that many of the nonmetropolitan gang members were from the local area, although gang members that moved in or visited might have brought the symbols and ideas of urban gangs with them. Having identified a gang problem, the typical rural agency responded through suppression, often arresting suspected gang youth for the smallest infraction. Continued study of nonmetropolitan gangs is important for addressing issues surrounding the study of gangs in a variety of settings. 2 tables, 45 references
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