​The U.S. Department of Justice defines a gang as: 

  • Three or more members who collectively identify themselves by adopting a group identity, which they use to create an atmosphere of fear or intimidation, frequently by employing one or more of the following: a common name, slogan, identifying sign, symbol, tattoo or other physical marking, style or color of clothing, hairstyle, hand sign or graffiti;

  • Whose purpose in part is to engage in criminal activity and which uses violence or intimidation to further its criminal objectives;

  • Whose members engage in criminal activity or acts of juvenile delinquency that if committed by an adult would be crimes with the intent to enhance or preserve the association's power, reputation or economic resources.

  • The association may also possess some of the following characteristics:

    • The members may employ rules for joining and operating within the association.

    • The members may meet on a recurring basis.

    • The association may provide physical protection of its members from others.

    • The association may seek to exercise control over a particular geographic location or region, or it may simply defend its perceived interests against rivals.

    • The association may have an identifiable structure.

There are several reasons why people, especially youth, get involved in gangs. Involvement with a gang can happen due to lack of family or social ties in their community, for financial reasons and to gain status, or to show family, neighborhood, or cultural pride. Other times people can get drawn into a gang because they are afraid for their safety and think a gang will provide protection from neighborhood crime and violence, or they have been threatened by the gang to join.

The most common age that youth join a gang is around 15, but the early adolescent years (12–14 years of age) are a crucial time when youth are exposed to gangs and may consider joining a gang. While it is more common for boys to get involved in gangs, girls also face similar vulnerabilities and can also become involved in gangs. Gang involvement can be fluid, as some youth move in and out of gang-involved friendship groups. Parents & educators should pay attention to even small changes in behavior.

Below are some warning signs that someone you know may be involved with a gang:


Unexplained Departure From Family & Friends

Gang-involved youth may have an unexplained departure from their families or friend group.  This may be an immediate change or happen over time.  Their new "family" or friend group may be out of the ordinary or people they would not frequently associate with.  As gangs associate themselves as a "family, certain names or "family" connotations may be used to introduce or identify one another within the group.  


While certain gangs have reduced their use of specific colors to avoid identification by law enforcement, many gangs still use colors or symbols to represent themselves.  These colors may be worn in their clothing, bandannas, jewelry, belts, hats, shoelaces, or hair bands.  These colors may also appear in other possessions such as school supplies and room decorations.  

Symbols & Numbers

Symbols and numbers, or the use of numbers in place of letters often have significance within gang culture. These characters do not have the same meaning across the country and symbols may vary regionally as well as from set to set or clique to clique.   

Clothing and Apparel

Gang-involved youth may dress a specific way to identify with a particular gang, set, clique, or crew. Certain identifiable items may include sports teams, not in the region, or wearing athletic gear for a sport they would not typically be interested in.  Wearing athletic gear for a team in colors not traditionally associated with the team or altered with graffiti or extra symbols is also an indicator.  Beads or beaded jewelry in gang colors may be identifiable.  Different lengths of beads or may signify different status' within a gang as well. Gang clothing trends change and are often different from one place to another, so clothing alone may not be enough to indicate a youth’s affiliation with a particular gang. 


Gangs often use graffiti to mark their territory, brag about their reputation, mourn fallen gang members, and threaten or challenge rival gangs.  For this reason, graffiti can be very dangerous.  Youth who are engaging in graffiti may have items such as spray paint, spray paint plastic tips, wide-tipped markers, or sketchbooks with graffiti works in progress.  You may also notice remnants of paint on their clothing, backpacks, or other items.  You may notice "tagging" or "doodling" on notebooks, homework, or other school items with the repeated use of certain initials, numbers, symbols, or colors.  Note: Tagging is not necessarily always gang-related.  There are "tagging crews" which tag for artistic purposes.

Social Media

The internet has provided a new medium for gang communication and promotion.  Social media websites such as Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and others allow gang-involved youth to represent their gang affiliation, taunt others, post threats, and promote their gangs' activities.  Social media can escalate the potential for violence as it reaches a large audience.  Gang-involved youth may frequently use out of the ordinary or unexplained emojis or other symbols that would not otherwise make sense in the context of their use.  Hand signs or other symbols may make frequent appearances in photos or posts as well. 


Gang-related tattoos are used to show affiliation, rank, crimes committed, racial and ethnic alliances, and loyalty to a gang.  Tattoos can often include initials, numbers, or symbols associated with a specific gang.  

Hand Signs & Terminology

Gangs may use specific hand gestures, handshakes, or terminology to communicate their affiliation with the gang, to issue threats or challenges to a rival gang, or communicate in code when authority figures are present.  These gestures or sayings may not make sense to you or be relative to the context in which they are being used.

Other Changes to Look For

  •  Changes in academic performance or declining school attendance

  •  A sudden negative attitude about law enforcement, school officials, or adults in authority

  •  Out of the ordinary or sudden defiant or confrontational behavior 

  •  Staying out late without reason

  •  An unusual desire for secrecy

  •  Inability to travel into certain neighborhoods or areas

  •  Excessive worry about safety and constantly surveying for danger

  •  Suspected use of drugs or alcohol

  •  Possession of ammunition or other weapons or parts

  •  Non-accidental or unexplained physical injuries such as evidence of being beaten up or injuries to hands and knuckles

  •  Unexplained cash or goods such as clothing, electronics, jewelry, or multiple cellular phones


The information above was collected from the Suffolk Sheriff's Intelligence Unit, the FBI, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security.

Note: If you believe you have identified someone being recruited by or currently a member of a gang, alert law enforcement immediately.  It is unsafe to approach or attempt to "rescue" a child engaged in gang activity.  You have no way of telling how a gang may react or retaliate against the victim or yourself. If you suspect immediate danger, please call 911. 

The Suffolk County Sheriff's Office is an Accredited Law Enforcement Agency


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