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The violent gang and terrorist organizations file.

Both the World Trade Center bombing and the Oklahoma City tragedy stand in testament to the formidable threat to U.S. citizens and property posed by international and domestic terrorists. The horror of such incidents reinforces the need for law enforcement to know the identities and operations of terrorist groups within this country.

Similarly, over the last several years, law enforcement has encountered an increasing number of organized criminal groups that are actively involved in drug trafficking, money laundering, political corruption, and even contract murders. Moreover, the number of youths involved with these gangs is staggering. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program, killings by juvenile gang members increased 500 percent between 1980 and 1994, making this one of the fastest-growing crimes in the United States.(1)

Gangs even have infiltrated U.S. institutions once thought to be immune. Firmly entrenched in correctional facilities, they now search for a foothold in the military.(2) Indeed, many large gangs have nationwide followings, and some groups have world wide memberships in structures resembling organized crime families.

As they search for new markets in which to operate, these groups export their corruption to smaller towns, which often have limited resources. Unfortunately, unlike many of their larger counterparts, small-town police departments usually do not have a database from which they can retrieve information to help them identify and, in turn, combat the acts of gang and terrorist group members.

The Violent Gang and Terrorist Organizations File (VGTOF) was designed to help law enforcement do just that. Implemented in October 1995 as a component of the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), it acts as a pointer system, identifying known members of violent gangs and terrorist organizations and facilitating the exchange of information. By alerting law enforcement officers to potentially dangerous subjects, the VGTOF enhances their safety. In short, the VGTOF provides every U.S. law enforcement agency access to valuable information on a growing crime problem that threatens the safety of officers and citizens in an increasing number of communities.

The VGTOF consists of two major classifications: the Group Reference Capability (GRC) and Group Member Capability (GMC). The GRC provides information on terrorist groups and gangs, while the GMC identifies individual members.

To be included in the VGTOF, terrorist groups and gangs must meet the definitions ascribed to them by NCIC.(3) Similarly, individuals must meet certain criteria, which positively identify them as members of a terrorist group or gang.(4) After verifying and documenting that these conditions have been met, law enforcement agencies can enter the appropriate data into the VGTOF.

Establishing a Group Record

Procedures for entering information into NCIC vary. In some states, a control terminal agency, such as the state police, maintains the system for the entire state. In others, individual agencies can enter their own data. Whatever their state's policy, law enforcement agencies that encounter individuals belonging to an organization meeting the NCIC definition of either a violent gang or terrorist group first must establish a group record.

In addition to a special NCIC code that corresponds to each group, the GRC contains what is known as essential identifying data. That is, only traits generally associated with this group that would help identify its members and activities are entered. For a group record, these would include such items as what members wear, how they communicate (hand signals, graffiti), and the types of crimes they commit.

So that querying departments can obtain additional information, the primary agency(5) enters its name, as well as a point of contact. The GRC also includes other agencies that can provide additional details about the group.

Gang and terrorist activity varies across the United States, making the local affiliates of a national gang or terrorist organization unique. For this reason, the VGTOF will accept numerous records for groups sharing the same name. As a result, agencies across the country can contribute records for their own homegrown versions of such organizations as the Los Angeles-based Bloods and Crips.

Establishing an Individual Record

With a group record established, law enforcement agencies can enter records on individuals who have met the entry criteria and have a known association with a violent gang or terrorist organization. Using the GMC, agencies enter mandatory identifying data, including the individual's name, sex, race, and group affiliation, and, if possible, such optional information as height and weight; eye and hair colors; date and place of birth; and marks, scars, and tattoos.

A miscellaneous field allows agencies to enter caution indicators, that is, information about group members that would serve as a warning to other officers. This might be the fact that the person carries a particular weapon or has threatened to kill police officers. Because details such as these are vital to officer safety, agencies entering data into the VGTOF should "pack the record" with as much pertinent information as possible.

Another field in the GMC allows agencies to associate group members with a particular vehicle.(6) In this way, officers who request NCIC checks on vehicles that they stop can determine if the vehicles have ties to gang or terrorist activity.

Individuals may have more than one record if they are known members of a particular gang or terrorist organization that operates in several jurisdictions. In these cases, an inquiry will result in a multiple-record response, indicating which agencies have identified that person as a member of a gang or terrorist group.

Maintaining, Auditing, and Expanding the System

Agencies entering data into the VGTOF must update the records they establish and delete any information that is no longer valid. Furthermore, agencies must maintain documentation to support. every entry, which is important for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, an agency that pronounces an individual guilty by mere association with a gang or terrorist group without concrete proof opens itself up to litigation. In addition, NCIC policy requires biannual audits by the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division. During these reviews, auditors check agency records for accuracy and backup documentation.

The VGTOF currently contains entries for 445 groups and 180 individuals. As agencies become more familiar with the system, these numbers will grow.


Not long ago, terrorist attacks were thought to happen only in other countries. As recent events indicate, the United States is not immune to acts of violence committed by both foreign and domestic foes. Likewise, gangs that a few years ago were associated only with large cities now are invading suburban and rural neighborhoods nationwide.

As their reach extends, gangs and terrorist organizations threaten an increasing number of Americans. Fortunately, a concerted effort by all levels of law enforcement can even the odds in the fight against gangs and terrorists. By using the Violent Gang and Terrorist Organizations File to share information with their colleagues across the nation, law enforcement agencies large and small will be able to quickly identify and safely apprehend the members of these dangerous criminal groups. '


1 U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reporting Program, Crime in the United States 1980-1994 (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1980-1994).

2 Gregory Vistica, "'Gangstas' in the Ranks," Newsweek, July 24, 1995, 48.

3 See U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Information Services Division, National Crime Information Center, Technical and Operational Update 94-2, "Violent Gang and Terrorist Organizations File."

4 Ibid.

5 The primary agency is the first agency to enter a record for a particular group. Once established, the record can be canceled only by this agency.

6 Vehicles must meet the criteria outlined in "Violent Gang and Terrorist Organizations File," National Crime Information Center, Technical and Operational Update 94-2, Criminal Justice Information Services Division, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 24.

Mr. Peter F. Episcopo and Mr. Darrin L. Moor serve as training instructors in the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division in Clarksburg, West Virginia. For additional information on the VGTOF and/or a list of reference codes, contact the Communications Unit, Programs Support Section, Criminal Justice Information Services Division, FBi, Clarksburg, West Virginia 26306, 304-625-2823. Requests for training should be directed to the Education/Training Services Unit at the same address.
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Article Details
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Author:Moor, Darrin L.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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