How to interview gang members

One of the most important indicators of gang membership or association other than tattoos is information you can obtain from an interview

One of the most important aspects of classification and subsequent housing of individuals being booked into correctional facilities is the ability to identify who is a security threat to the inmates and staff.

Members of street and prison gangs pose the greatest risk to the safe and secure operation of a correctional facility if they are not classified correctly. One of the most important indicators of gang membership or association other than tattoos is the information you can obtain from an interview. 

In a corrections setting we conduct many types of interviews such as intake, classification, protective custody and administrative segregation. We also conduct in-house criminal investigations and intelligence-gathering interviews. This article focuses on interviews conducted for the purpose of identifying individuals who are suspected of being involved in either street gang or prison gang activity.

This undated file photo in a court filing provided by the United States Attorney's office in Chicago, shows a gang member's back tattoo that reads
This undated file photo in a court filing provided by the United States Attorney's office in Chicago, shows a gang member's back tattoo that reads "The Earth Is Our Turf", and "Hobo." (United States Attorney's office in Chicago via AP, File)

How to interview a gang member

Never turn down the opportunity to talk with or interview a gang member. It is best when the inmate initiates the process and requests to talk to a correctional officer. If they are requesting to talk to you through a third party such as the housing unit officer, have that officer document the inmate’s request.

If time is not an issue, have the inmate put the request to speak in writing. This will assist you in the future should the inmate or their attorney try to use this in an adverse manner against you in court at a later date.

The difference between an interview and an interrogation

In the correctional setting, you will mainly conduct interviews with gang members. There are several differences between an interview and an interrogation:

  • In an interview, you get information; in an interrogation, you get a confession.
  • In an interview, you can take notes; in an interrogation, you do not take notes.
  • In an interview, the interviewee talks the most; in an interrogation, you talk the most.
  • In an interview, you are friendly; in an interrogation, you are not friendly.
  • In an interview, you are the supportive good cop; in an interrogation, you are the accusatory bad cop;
  • In an interview, you both sit; in an interrogation, they sit and you can stand.

When preparing to interview a gang member, follow these guidelines:

  • Never go into an interview with a gang member unprepared.
  • Do your homework as they have done theirs!
  • Review the current file, NCIC/rap sheet, past reports and any gang files.
  • Become familiar with their street gang, prison gang or criminal organization.
  • Know the cultural background of the inmate.
  • Check pre-sentence reports.
  • Check their prison and jail files.
  • Review any past parole & probation files.
  • Check computerized gang networks.
  • Speak to investigators, officers and other staff members that may be familiar with them.
  • Be aware of games and manipulation.
  • Know your goals for the interview and the inmate’s possible motives.

Know more than the inmate thinks you do – this will allow you to be aware when they are lying to you or trying to manipulate you. Be aware of any legal concerns. Part of your interview preparation (homework) is to research current charges, pending sentences and other legal situations of the individual you are going to interview. If the individual has pending charges, you may want to consult with the prosecutor on the matter before the interview. Also check your agency’s policy on interviewing charged suspects or consult your legal advisor.

Remember the five Ps: Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. This holds very true when conducting gang interviews. If the individual you are interviewing thinks you already know something, they will freely give you information. If they don’t think you already know, they will most likely not discuss it. In their mind, you can’t be “snitching” if someone already knows it. You are only helping them help you. You may only have a small piece of the puzzle and that little bit may be enough. If the gang member believes you already have the information, they will continue talking about the gang and their activities and, thus, inadvertently fill in the missing puzzle pieces for you.

During the interview

Always record the interview for your protection. How or when the recording is used is up to you. You are conducting these interviews for the safety and security of the facility. Any other information is secondary and not the original intent. Consider these pointers during the interview:

  • Choose the best location.
  • Have as few people in the room as possible.
  • Avoid taking too many notes.
  • Show mutual respect, be firm but fair.
  • Do not rush.
  • Control the direction of the interview
  • Be prepared to call the inmate’s bluff.
  • Be patient if you have to end the interview. Nine times out of 10, inmates will request to talk to you again.
  • Keep your questions relevant to gang-related information such as tattoos, neighborhood boundaries, enemies, alliances, membership, graffiti and codes used.
  • Do not ask about the current charge/crime.
  • Remind the inmate not to talk about the current case. If the inmate insists on talking about the case, remind the inmate of their Miranda rights.
  • If the inmate starts to talk about criminal activities they are involved in, but you did not ask the question, let them run at the mouth. Stay away from follow-up questions in this area, so that it cannot be construed you solicited the information. Return to your general gang questions.

Take the questioning as far as you need to and don’t let them be vague. For example:

Q - Where are you from?

- Arizona

Q - Where at in Arizona?

A - Tucson.

Q - Where in Tucson? (Tucson is a BIG place!)

A - The West Side

Q - What Barrio, Hood or Set (ask according to suspected gang lingo)

A - Hollywood

Q - What clique?

A - Crazy Cats (Look for tats U of A Logo, WS,HW, etc.)

Q - What do they call you? (Moniker)

A - Lil Loco

Q - Why Lil Loco

A - My Father is Big Loco

Continue as long as you can to back up the info…

If and when an inmate requests to talk, always remind them their attorney would not want them talking to you. In my experience the inmate usually informs me they do not care what their attorney thinks. Remind them the interview is taking place at their request. Remind them not to talk about the current case.

This information is solely intended for training and educational purposes and shall not be considered as legal advice. If you decide to use any concepts from this material, you should consult your department’s legal counsel to determine how the laws of your jurisdiction affect the application of this information to your individual department.

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