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What's in a name? Gang monikers.

Consider this scenario: Patrol units respond to a gang-infested neighborhood to investigate a shooting. Initial reports indicate that the shots came from a lowered, gray Chevrolet Impala, which witnesses saw cruising the street just before the shooting.

A witness tells police that one of the suspects is known as "Creeper." Checking the department's gang database, the detective investigating the shooting discovers that Creeper is the moniker for a gang member who previously has been seen riding in the car involved in the shooting. Within an hour, the detective has a photo array of possible suspects - which includes a photo of Creeper - available to show witnesses.

With the increasing presence of gang activity and its accompanying violence in communities throughout the United States, law enforcement must consider new techniques to investigate gang-related crimes. One method involves gathering gang intelligence, specifically, moniker information. Gang members now use monikers, or nicknames, so dependably that these pseudonyms can provide a reliable source of investigative information.

This article explains the nature of monikers and how law enforcement officers can obtain moniker information. It also suggests a multijurisdictional approach for sharing gang information and describes a newly established national gang database designed to do exactly that.


Monikers are the names gang members use among their peers; as such, they become symbols of acceptance by the gang. Both male and female gang members may be known by monikers. Because gang members use these names almost exclusively, their acquaintances often do not know their given names.

Several different styles of monikers exist. Many reflect a distinctive aspect of a gang member's personality, physical characteristics, reputation, or other trait. Some convey boldness or devotion to the gang lifestyle. Others reinforce the gang member's ego. Examples of real-life monikers include gordo (Spanish for "fat"), describing a heavyset person; blanco (Spanish for "white"), referring to a light-skinned individual; and "pirate," celebrating a gang member's devotion to a criminal lifestyle.

Sometimes, gang members bestow monikers upon their peers; other times, individuals choose their own. Every moniker is unique to the gang member, who will defend it with vigor. No two members of the same gang will be known by an identical moniker; however, gang members may sponsor a new member into the gang and allow the use of a moniker with an additional designator, such as "lil" preceding the moniker or "2" following it. As gang members die, their monikers often get recycled.


Traditionally, police officers familiar with the areas they patrol have been the primary source of moniker information. With the dramatic increase in the number of gangs, however, it is no longer practical for any one officer to know or recall moniker information. From gang enforcement team members to school liaison officers, law enforcement officers in every position should work together to gather this important information from a variety of sources.

Gang members use their monikers to express their identities. For this reason, they scrawl their monikers on the streets as graffiti; tattoo them on their bodies; and write them on such personal items as school yearbooks, clothing, and jewelry. By keeping their eyes open, officers can obtain evidence of a person's gang affiliation.

Informant interviews represent another method of obtaining moniker information. Informants may be community residents or former gang members. With proper planning, officers can take advantage of the wealth of information ex-gang members can provide on their former associates.

Investigators also can collect intelligence by monitoring or recording inmate visits or conversations between gang members placed in the same room during investigations.[1] Contacts made at disturbance calls can yield moniker information. Finally, whenever gang members bury their own or congregate for other social purposes, officers can be there to gather intelligence.

Unfortunately, gang members realize that law enforcement increasingly uses moniker intelligence as an investigative aid. As a result, some gang members attempt to deceive officers by offering false monikers or family nicknames instead.

For instance, a gang member named Joseph may give his moniker as "Lil Joey." Because monikers usually reflect an aspect of who the gang member is or wants to be, a moniker with a strong relationship to a true name, or one by which the gang member is known by relatives, may not be an actual gang moniker. For this reason, officers should verify moniker information using previous contacts or other corroborative methods.


To be used effectively during an investigation, moniker information and other gang intelligence must be organized into a database. Many states have statutes regulating the collection and storage of personal identifying information; therefore, officers should check the law in their jurisdictions.

Departments should establish a written policy that outlines their criteria for obtaining and maintaining gang intelligence. By adhering to the policy, agencies ensure the integrity of their databases and can defend themselves against claims of discrimination and selective enforcement.

Agencies should designate a police officer or analyst to serve as their gang intelligence coordinators. Coordinators should receive adequate training in the gang subculture, as well as in the legal requirements of acquiring and maintaining gang intelligence. Although coordinators do not have to be personally familiar with every gang member whose information they receive, they should be familiar with local gangs, including their ethnic backgrounds, habits, territories, and rivalries.

The coordinator verifies whether submitted gang-related intelligence - such as photographs or field interview cards - meets the agency's established criteria. At the Santa Cruz, California, Sheriff's Office, for example, officers complete field contact cards to document encounters with suspected gang members. The Santa Cruz gang coordinator verifies that the officers' reasons for believing a person belongs to a gang meet at least 2 of the agency's 10 criteria. To do this, the coordinator may need to contact submitting officers to confirm the legal justification for contacts, statements made by gang members, observations and indications of gang membership, and similar information. The coordinator then enters the certified facts into the database.

Source documents, which support the coordinator's opinion, must be preserved in a retrievable form in order to demonstrate the integrity of the database during audits and in court. In fact, regular audits, conducted by an individual other than the coordinator, ensure the veracity of the database. Moreover, the coordinator may be called as an expert witness to explain the procedure used to collect and certify the department's gang information.


Only the agency coordinator should be able to modify the gang database, but all authorized agency personnel should have access to it while investigating possible gang-related crimes. Personnel should be instructed that any information they obtain from the gang database is intended for law enforcement use only and is subject to the same guidelines as other types of confidential information. This notice should be printed on any reports generated from the database.


Because gangs do not respect law enforcement jurisdictional boundaries, a unified, multijurisdictional database would provide the optimum response to gang-related crime. By giving participating agencies access to information on gangs and their members' monikers, associates, vehicles, and the like, a unified database can offer the best overall evaluation of gang activity.

Next, it can reduce the possibility of conflicting information existing among individual agency databases. In court, the defense may call a gang expert from one jurisdiction to cast doubt upon the credibility of the prosecution's gang expert from another jurisdiction, based on contradictory information contained in each agency's database. A cooperative database can prevent this scenario from occurring.

Finally, the database can form the basis for a regional gang investigators association. Such a group would give gang intelligence coordinators from participating agencies the opportunity to meet with their peers to review procedures, trends, and gang intelligence, thereby enhancing the effectiveness of current investigations. In addition, agencies could engage in proactive law enforcement by focusing and coordinating efforts toward problem areas.

Network linking would allow individual agencies to access the database from their own computer terminals. Even without this link, the system could operate via a centrally located terminal in a secure location. Then, depending on the policy in that state, agency coordinators either would enter data into the computer themselves or send the information to the central site for entry by a designated operator. This person could publish periodic bulletins and disseminate them to participating agencies. Individual coordinators would retain the source documents that they used to certify the gang information.

The Violent Gang and Terrorist Organizations File (VGTOF), a component of the FBI's National Crime Information Center, represents one way law enforcement agencies can share gang intelligence across jurisdictions.(2) By allowing agencies to both enter and retrieve information on gangs and their members, the VGTOF can complement existing databases or provide agencies with valuable information they might not otherwise be able to obtain.


Law enforcement agencies employ a variety of methods to investigate and suppress gang activity. Likewise, obtaining information on gang monikers can provide the leads officers need to solve cases. By entering this and other gang intelligence into a database, departments can enhance their ability to safeguard their communities and reassure citizens. A multijurisdictional approach, in concert with the FBI's Violent Gang and Terrorist Organizations File, offers the most comprehensive system of maintaining gang intelligence.

Gang members may think their monikers shield them from law enforcement. Yet, when agencies work together, a gang member by any other name can still be caught.


1 Officers should consult their legal advisors or local prosecutors for the specifics of the law in this area. See for example, Kimberly A. Crawford, "Surreptitious Recording of Suspects' Conversations," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, September 1993, 26.

2 See Peter F. Episcopo and Darrin L. Moor, "Focus on Information Resources: The Violent Gang and Terrorist Organizations File," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October 1996, 21.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Federal Bureau of Investigation
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Author:Wilson, Craig R.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:May 1, 1997
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