The Kingpin Fallacy: Targeting Criminal Street Gangs

Organized crime, particularly criminal street gangs, remains a persistent and deadly problem that plagues many cities in the United States. In a 21Apr14 article in the Atlantic Cities City Lab author Richard Florida uses recent data from the US Census Bureau to map population migration patterns into and out of America’s ten largest cities. The maps elucidate the Census Bureau data: a continuous increase of net migration into the cities. Of the ten largest US cities, eight show populations that continue to rise (Chicago and Philadelphia are the two cities experiencing net losses in population).

As our cities continue to grow, residents will find themselves in an escalating competition for scarce local resources, including living space, employment, and access to civic services like police, fire, sanitation, water and electricity, and health care. Municipal diasporas are likely to remain and grow. Municipal government itself faces resource shortages, as an ever-increasing population places greater demands on its services. This often results in areas that are significantly undergoverned, even if local governance is strong. Communities bereft of civic attention and wracked with poverty are breeding grounds for crime—especially organized crime in the form of local street gangs. It appears, then, that membership within street gangs is not just likely to remain, but to grow and become more deeply entrenched. To strategically disrupt and dismantle gangs, local law enforcement must balance effectiveness with efficiency. This need comes with significant temporal pressure: gangs use violence not only to protect their claimed turf and illegal business operations but also to intimidate those who might inform against them. The use of violence as a tool is further compounded by its employment as a means of resolution for even the most pedestrian of grievances. The willingness to resort to violence is increasing at a frightening pace in many areas. When Chicagoans opened their newspapers on the morning of 07July14, they were greeted by the staggering results of the Independence Day holiday weekend’s total violence: 82 people shot, 14 fatally. Of those numbers, 5 were shot by police, two fatally. While many of these shootings were motivated by non-gang-related matters, the vast majority were the result of gang disputes.


Gangs and Gang Factions

Traditional approaches toward combating organized crime have typically included identifying and mapping criminal organizational structure, identifying kingpins and other top-tier leaders, and removing those from power after lengthy, in-depth investigations. Organized crime groups such as the mafia and narcotics cartels employed traditional hierarchical structures, with a single or very small group at the top and a pyramid-shaped distribution of membership. Within these groups, clear cut chains of command existed, and removing the upper-most members achieved significant effect in dismantling the criminal enterprise. This approach, having been shown effective against these types of groups, was employed against criminal street gangs. Perhaps the most notable of these efforts was against the El Rukn/Black P Stones and their leader Jeff Fort in the late 1980s. Fort was convicted in federal court of domestic terrorism. He is not alone, however. Residing with Fort at the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility(ADX) prison in Florence, Colorado, is Larry Hoover, who ruled a claimed 30,000-member-strong Gangster Disciples on Chicago’s west and south sides. A lengthy RICO investigation of Hoover while incarcerated in the early 1990s resulted in a conviction and his transfer to ADX.

Unfortunately, the convictions of Fort and Hoover did not precipitate the fall of their respective street gangs. Instead, with the loss of leadership, many of the gang’s members who had been middle-tier managers under the previous leadership became street gang entrepreneurs, retaining their former gang affiliations as surnames while adding new first names to denote a separate gang faction. The results of this factionalizing of large street gangs have been near catastrophic for gang crime investigations. Centralized hierarchical organizations shattered into dozens of loosely affiliated factions. In the rush to fill the power vacuum left by incarcerated leaders, existing rivalries went hot, while new rivalries created new violence as gang members who were once united began to compete with one another over territory they once shared. The trend toward gang factions increases today. In Chicago, a 2003 assessment of street gangs indicated 68 gangs with 500 factions. An assessment taken only 9 years later shows 59 gangs and 625 factions (

As time has passed and older gang members are replaced by younger members— many of whom were not yet born while either Hoover or Fort were free—traditional alliances and rivalries shift with profits. Today it is not uncommon to see former—or current—rivals reaching a financial agreement that allows them to share prime locations for narcotics sales. The increase in factions over gangs has yet another critical dimension: as the number of factions increase, both the membership of the faction as well as the size of the faction’s territory decrease. The once-30,000-member Gangster Disciples is now a group of allied and warring factions, each with typically between 50 to 200 members. This has profound implications on organizational structure and leadership.

First, with territories typically being under a square half-mile in size—many often comprising just a couple blocks—gang factions have become islands in a sea of islands. In order to facilitate the continuation of criminal enterprises—like narcotics sales—factions must align themselves with other factions to achieve needed resources. A 30,000-member criminal enterprise can be vertically integrated, facilitating much of its own resources internally, or it can make the connections necessary with other, often transnational, enterprises to secure its needs. A 100-member criminal enterprise surrounded by a dozen other 100-member enterprises does not typically have such capability or direct access. Similarly, directly competing for the resources—territory, narcotics supply, narcotics sales, etc—with neighboring factions places such a strain on the organization that its sole purpose becomes survival. It is a far better business model to align with others who have those resources and do business with them. The result is that each faction exists within another—or several other—faction’s criminal enterprise network.

Second, the combination of decreased membership and territory plus the lessons learned from previous police operations has changed the organizational structure of many gangs. Instead of a rigid pyramid-shaped hierarchy, many gangs today are much flatter, with redundancies in leadership and management roles. Some simply lack a defined leadership structure at all, and exist as a collective group who make decisions as a whole or by simple majority. Where gangs exist that do employ a single leader organizational structure, the leadership has insulated itself in such a manner as to make them near immune to prosecution, or have made the cost—in terms of time, energy, and manpower—exceptionally high in an effort to catch them engaged in criminal activity. While law enforcement is busy with these investigations, the day-to-day operations of the gang—narcotics sales, violence, and intimidation—continue.


The Kingpin Fallacy

The Kingpin Fallacy is law enforcement’s continued insistence that all street gangs are ruled by kingpins, that the understanding of the gang’s organization and operations be defined according to a traditional pyramid organizational structure, and that targeting such a person will result in significant degrading of the gang or its collapse.

There are a few reasons why this insistence is so prevalent. Previous investigations with organized crime have employed the kingpin model with success. Law enforcement itself is designed in such a way, with a chief at the top, so that it is agent’s default understanding of organizations; we look for this organizational structure even where it may not exist. Law enforcement struggles too often to fit the square peg of gangs into the round hole of traditional hierarchical organizational structure. The result is that effective targeting of criminal actors within the gang is significantly degraded.


Targeting Considerations for Street Gangs

 Understanding Gangs as Flat Networks

To be more effective, law enforcement must first evaluate gangs as relationship-based networks, then target those persons within the network that facilitate critical network connections. A useful analogy can be made using the four corners of a city block. Assume that on each corner of this block there are a total of ten gang members who are engaged in narcotics sales. Over time, the distribution of connectivity will reveal that the ten people on each corner tend to associate with each other more than they associate with persons on the other corners—relationship-based subgroups within the faction. Further analysis is likely to reveal interconnectivity between groups; some persons from each corner are likely to associate with persons assigned to other corners. Also revealed are relationships that span all, or most, of these corners. Particular attention should be paid to individuals whose association with each subgroup is shallow (one or two of each group of ten) or temporal (occurring at habitual intervals or within the same time frame). These subjects are most likely key facilitators, and their presence within the network act to coordinate and hold the network together.

Identifying distinct relationship-based subgroups within gangs and gang factions also allows law enforcement to better address gang violence. By looking at acts of violence, those who are committing the violence, and the existing subgroups, law enforcement can often narrow down those perpetuating the violence to one or two specific subgroups. This allows law enforcement to more narrowly focus their efforts on those specific people whom associate most directly with one another, rather than attempting to throw an enforcement “blanket” over the entire gang. Coupled with a geographic understanding of where particular subgroups tend to congregate within the claimed gang territory also increases efficiency in resources allocated and time spent addressing the issue. For example, in a gang of 100 people covering a four-by-four block square of territory, law enforcement can focus their attention on ten to fifteen key individuals and the one block they most often frequent. Additionally, when key and influential members of the gang or faction are identified, law enforcement can also approach these individuals regarding violence, attempting to bring pressure on the subgroup by more established members of the gang.


Understanding Gangs as Interconnected Networks

Understanding gang factions as networked with one another allows law enforcement to actively search for and identify those persons who serve as the “human bridges” that facilitate the connection between cooperating factions and gangs. As previously mentioned, the increasing move toward smaller gang factions brings with it both the requirement to cooperate and import key resources as well as fierce and often violent competition for resources. A series of alliances and conflicts are formed. By focusing not only on the relationships gang members within a gang have with each other but also on their relationships with members from different gang members, law enforcement can begin to identify not only which specific persons facilitate these interactions, but the depth of these interactions as well.

Returning to the identification of subgroups within gangs, examination of relationships between members of gangs can identify if interaction exists across the entire gang or if it is limited to specific people in specific subgroups. Again, this allows law enforcement to not only gain a better understanding of the interconnectivity, but to better focus its resources where they are most needed.

A final note about interconnectivity: It remains a critical function of law enforcement analysts to determine if interconnectivity is cooperative or competitive. It is just as important to understand the context of the relationship, particularly if it is violently competitive. Determining if the violence is due to historical rivalries or more acute variables (personality clashes, personal grievances) will help law enforcement understand how wide or deep the violence may spread and to craft more effective responses.


 Understanding the Role of Influential Members within a Gang

Identifying influential members remains mostly within the realm of human intelligence. These are the people most everyone in the gang knows and listens to. Identifying influential members is the first critical point.

Overlaying an analysis of a gang as a relationship-based network with the human intelligence ascertaining influence will not necessarily show convergence. That is, those people who are identified as key members within the network may not be those persons whom are most influential. This understanding is the second critical point: removing persons in key positions within the network may not also remove persons of significant influence. Conversely, removing influential members may not break apart the network.

The third critical point is identifying the nature of influence. While it may seem reasonable from an operations perspective to remove influential members of a gang, understanding the specific type of influence an individual has must drive how these gang members are approached. Targeting influential members who drive violence or hold a non-violent criminal group together is likely a reasonable strategy and, when coupled with targeting and removing persons in key network positions, can have devastating effects on a gang. However, removing an influential member whose influence keeps order within the gang and prevents other members from engaging in violence is likely to create violence. In such instances, it is better for law enforcement to directly engage this person with messages of keeping violence at bay while simultaneously targeting and removing key network members and facilitators.


Understanding Gangs as Open, Complex Systems within a Complex Environment

The environment within which gangs and law enforcement operate is an open and complex system. Unlike complicated systems, which are composed of multiple, interacting components that can be broken apart into their respective pieces and examined independently, complex systems are dependant and relationship based. When any relationship within the system is affected, the whole of the system is affected. Complex systems share the trait of emergence, which means they can change without any outside influence. Gangs are complex systems. They display emergence, as competition for power within the gang can change the nature of the gang itself as well as the relationships between its members. It is also an open system in that it is affected by outside influence, most notably by conflicts with rival gangs and through interactions with law enforcement.

In order for effective targeting—and overall counter-gang strategies—to be effective, complexity must be understood and managed. Continued reassessment of the gang—its key network members, facilitators, and influentials—must be practiced. After significant acts of gang violence, after law enforcement removes key network members, and after law enforcement removes connections between cooperating gangs, the gang as a system may change. The change may be minor or it may be significant, but law enforcement must reassess the gang and determine the next best course of action. This requires law enforcement to craft strategies that have a built-in mechanism for reevaluation and adaptation. It also requires law enforcement to be agile, moving in real-time to new information and analysis.

Most importantly, not only should change be expected, the nature of the change should be anticipated. Law enforcement analysts must synthesize the sum of the gang’s organizational structure, key network members, influentials, relationships with other gangs, and the nature of the complex environment into a detailed understanding that permits a reasonable anticipation of what the gang is likely to do in response to incidents that affect it, be they driven by other gangs or by law enforcement operations. Law enforcement understanding must be such so that analysts can assess what gang responses will likely be, then have law enforcement operations in motion if that assessment is accurate. This “next step” thinking by law enforcement keeps a destabilizing pressure on the gang, preventing it from become too settled in any particular pattern of operations. Instability can be leveraged with targeted pressure into disorder and collapse.


Targeting Considerations for Other Criminal Groups

 The above targeting considerations are not exclusive to combating street gangs and gang factions. Criminal organizations that operate under traditional hierarchical organizational structures contain the same networked relationships as flatter organizations, making them equally susceptible to the network-based targeting strategies described here. They will perform equally well and produce similar results employed against street gangs with defined leadership hierarchies, transnational criminal organizations, and terrorist organizations.



Modern street gangs eschew much of the traditional, pyramid-shaped organizational hierarchy used by their predecessors. Instead, gangs today tend to be smaller, flatter organizations that rely on a high degree of networked connectivity to organize and operate. In order to be effective against these organizational structures and operations, law enforcement must make specific considerations in their targeting models. First, gangs must be understood as flatter, relationship-based organizations and the key network members that facilitate connectivity must be identified and targeted. Second, gangs must be understood as highly connected enterprises that cooperate and compete for resources, and key facilitators between gangs must be identified and targeted. Third, influential members must be identified and law enforcement operations targeting these members must be commensurate with the nature of their influence. Fourth, law enforcement must understand that gangs are complex systems and that high connectivity between gangs makes them even more susceptible to the nature of the complex environment, requiring law enforcement to craft adaptive strategies, conduct routine reassessments, and remain highly agile in operations. Finally, effective targeting requires the analytical sum of these component parts in order to not only focus on the best targets today, but anticipate the best targets tomorrow so that law enforcement operations can become a constant, focused pressure that disrupts, disorganizes, and eventually dismantles the criminal street gang.


The thoughts, opinions, and strategies described here are the original work of the author and are not intended to represent or speak on behalf of the Chicago Police Department, its policies, or its strategies.

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John Bertetto

John Bertetto

John A. Bertetto is a sworn member of the Chicago Police Department. His current areas of study and work include criminal street gangs, social network analysis, and asymmetric threat mitigation. He is the author of Counter-Gang Strategy: Adapted COIN in Policing Criminal Street Gangs, Countering Criminal Street Gangs: Lessons from the Counterinsurgent Battlespace, Designing Law Enforcement: Adaptive Strategies for the Complex Environment, and Toward a Police Ethos: Defining Our Values as a Call to Action. Officer Bertetto’s most recent research article “Reducing Gang Violence through Network Influence Based Targeting of Social Programs” has been accepted to the Industry & Government Track of the 2014 Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining (KDD) annual conference, a conference with a 20% acceptance rate. Officer Bertetto has worked street patrol, organized crime, and research and development assignments. His applied research projects have led to collaborative partnerships with students and faculty at USMA West Point, George Mason University, and the University of Maryland. He is one of the primary designers and the law enforcement SME behind the GANG social network analysis software, which has been featured in Popular Science, Governing, and on MIT’s technology blog, as well as profiled on ABC and BBC news. Officer Bertetto holds a Master of Science degree from Western Illinois University and a Master of Business Administration degree from St. Xavier University.