In Washington, D.C., crews are a significant source of violent crime, much of which occurs between crews. These neighborhood-based, loosely organized gangs are mostly made up of young people, and reaching these youth is a potential strategy for deterring crime. If we can get kids from different crews to interact through positive social activities, can we deter inter-crew violence? And can those interactions help keep youth from identifying with different crews?
At its core, crew or gang identity appears to be influenced by social context—whether that context is the neighborhood, crew, or gang. Yet, few interventions have seriously attempted to address crew- or gang-based identity at the group level; most are aimed at changing the behaviors of individual crew members. Such efforts may have missed an opportunity to change the norms of crime and interpersonal violence by changing the behavior of the group as a whole.
Recent research and anti-gang efforts, however, point to the possible benefits of such an approach. Urban Institute research on the social networks of delinquent youth found that belonging to a greater number of separate social groups tends to constrain youth delinquent behavior. A replication of that work supports those findings.
Much inter-group violence—including ethnic violence in other areas of the world and crew violence here in D.C. and in other U.S. cities—is grounded in a clashing of identities. Finding ways to cross these lines constructively could help discourage violence by enabling members of different crews to identify with each other, settling at least some inter-group conflict.
A few programs have tried to change group-based norms that support crew activity and have had some anecdotal evidence of success. Outreach workers from a D.C. nonprofit have taken District youth from oppositional crews on trips to West Virginia and Colorado, taking them out of their environments and encouraging honest and personal interaction. Studies of similar programs suggest that such trips have limited long-term impacts, but they haven’t been extensively studied. Still, they hold potential to positively affect participant behavior, especially if these positive interactions continue after the youth return to their communities.
The same nonprofit also brought together youth from multiple crews for a summer basketball league. The outreach workers noted that while the league was active, inter-crew violence and murder dropped. Inter-crew violence appeared to increase when the rec-center hosting the league was closed.
The first strategy bumps up against the potential problem of what happens once youth return to the communities in which their identities and social relations are embedded. Do the benefits of the intervention hold? The second strategy—the inter-crew basketball league—provides what appears to be a promising alternative: getting kids to mix through positive activities within the community. But this strategy is necessarily less intense and its effects may not be as strong. But both show promise as alternatives to standard, individual-level interventions. The basketball leagues present an especially appealing opportunity to build relationships between youth because of their potential for a big return on a small investment.
How leagues are structured and how teams are created will likely affect the outcomes. While it may be unclear exactly how to go about such community building, research and anecdotal evidence signal a new opportunity to gang intervention that can sever toxic group identities and encourage youth to interact across crew lines.