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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 May 2007, 12:29 GMT 13:29 UK
What is a gang?
The Magazine answers...

Youth gang
A group... but not a gang
Labelling groups of youths as gangs risks pushing them towards a life of crime, a report warns. So what constitutes a gang?

A dozen teenagers loiter under a street lamp, their hoodies pulled low over their brows - many might consider them a nuisance, but a new study warns us not to label them as a gang.

A Youth Justice Board report suggests that the term puts loose ragtags of youths who may be involved in petty crime on the same footing as hardened racketeers.

The police consider a gang to be a group of professional criminals involved in extortion, drug dealing, robbery and dealing stolen or counterfeit goods. A report by the Metropolitan Police in February identified 169 separate gangs in London, a quarter of whom had been involved in murders.

A gang is involved in organised criminal activity
It has a formal hierarchy
And its own codes of honour and behaviour

Professor Gus John, who has studied gangs in Manchester and London, says gangs generally have about 20 members who abide by a code of loyalty and behaviour. New members will often carry out acts of violence against their own families to demonstrate their commitment to the gang.

"Gangs don't hang around street corners where you can see them - they're much more sophisticated that that. When you pin that label on groups of young people, you're giving them a profile that they then have to live up to."

Word on the street

Youth worker Shaun Bailey says as a teenager in London's North Kensington he belonged to "clicks" - informal groups of youngsters hanging around together, who may live in the same area or share an interest in football or music.

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"As far as the street is concerned, a gang is made up of gangsters - organised criminals," says Mr Bailey, who is now the prospective Conservative candidate for Hammersmith. He worries that labelling every bunch of hoodies a gang is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"But boisterous behaviour does not equal criminal activity. By contrast, gangs have a higher level of organisation. They have ranks, they have hierarchies, they have initiation ceremonies."

The report says young people themselves resent the way in which any group behaving anti-socially is labelled a gang.

Shadow Home Secretary David Davis says the label matters not. "The public are not bothered about what people who commit crime and anti-social behaviour are called." But Professor John is certain that a line must be drawn to counter the appeal of gang culture.

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