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Gang Mentality and Behavior

By: SafeState

As mentioned before, behavior ultimately determines gang status. Part of the analysis to determine gang membership is the identification of gang indicia which can aid in identifying gang behaviors. There are several common behaviors that gang members share. These particular behaviors are not displayed all the time. Collectively, these behaviors build the gang mentality.


Gangs normally project an arrogant and defiant attitude in an attempt to intimidate others, especially in a public place and while in the presence of other gang members. Attitude is displayed when an impression can be made, to create fear and intimidate others. Attitude helps enhance the individual gang member’s reputation and, in turn, helps create the gang’s reputation within the community. Most gang members are opportunists who take advantage of a situation that will allow them to enhance their reputation.


Maintaining respect is a fundamental goal for gang members and plays a role in gang behaviors. To lose face, to get challenged, to be made fun of, to have your girl friend leave you for another, to be stared at too long and not respond are all ways that gang members think they lose respect. Gang members have a misguided sense that the gang they belong to and they themselves lose respect if any insult goes unanswered. This belief causes gangs to respond, often violently, to minor incidents, like those mentioned above. If a gang member feels that he or she will lose respect, they are motivated to prevent that from happening because they are protecting their own and the gang’s reputation and respect. For this reason gangs will use violence almost anywhere. This violence can take place in schools, shopping malls, movie theaters, parks, freeways, fast food locations, theme parks and restaurants.

Pay Back

“Pay back” is also known as retaliation. If a member of a gang is attacked, the gang responds, usually in an escalated manner. An attack on an individual gang member is viewed as an attack on the entire gang. The attack itself is a form of insult and the street gang mentality is that no insult goes unanswered. Retaliation attacks can cause a cycle of violence to develop between gangs.

Contrary to a popular myth, violence does not occur every day, all day, between gangs that are fighting. Retaliatory attacks are often planned. Gangs usually wait to gather intelligence about their rival, or to collect weapons. They also attempt to avoid being discovered by the police. Sometimes a whole year will pass before a retaliatory”pay back” occurs. At other times, the response is immediate.

More often than not, gang violence erupts as a result of a chance encounter between rival gangs. An ongoing rivalry between gangs turns violent after they accidentally meet at a mall, movie theater, school, restaurant or amusement park. Even when gang members are socializing they are ready and prepared to protect themselves. Because of ongoing rivalries and the concept of pay back, rival gangs that accidentally meet often fight it out. Unfortunately, the gangs seldom, if ever, worry about the venue where they meet. Being prepared often means that some of the gang members are armed. A shooting can happen and innocent people can end up hurt, or killed.

Back Up

Belonging to a gang requires members to help their fellow gang members. In gang terminology this is referred to as “back up.” Gang members willingly put themselves in harm’s way to assist peer gang members. It is like a baseball team’s dugout emptying to fight the opposing team after their batter gets hit with a pitch. The manager did not give an order or direct the players to run out and fight. They did it on their own, to back up their fellow ball player and to let the other team know that they are not intimidated or scared. They want to earn the other team’s respect.

This same behavior occurs within the gang culture. Gang members help each other in the commission of crime and protecting each other. There are no written rules or orders. It is understood that one gang member helps the other. “Back up” in a street gang occurs without the direction of a leader or co-leader.  Not to back up a fellow gang member would damage the gang member’s reputation, and the one who failed to provide “back up” would lose the respect of peer gang members. In the gang sub-culture, a member could be disciplined for this.


Most street gangs have no formal leadership structure. Often, the most active or the most violent gang members lead the gang. The rest of the membership looks up to these individuals, who are sometimes known as “shot callers.”

Some street gangs have an identified person who is in charge. Gang members in these types of gangs follow orders to complete a crime. For these gangs, going to commit a crime is referred to as “going on a mission.” There are no formal titles, but there is a formal structure to the group.

Other gangs use titles similar to the rank structure of the U.S. military. These gangs operate with a para-military style of leadership. A few street gangs even require written reports after the commission of a crime.

“Joining” a Gang

To join a gang a potential member has to prove that he or she is worthy of membership. One initiation ritual is known as a “jump in.” This is a process whereby a new member allows himself or herself to be beaten by three to four other gang members, for a specific amount of time. Being able to take this physical punishment is a sign of a member’s strength, courage and heart.

Passing a “jumping in” is important. It is another way to pass a first test of loyalty. This ritual has also been called a “beat in.” Members do not necessarily have to be jumped in to be a member of a gang.

There are other ways to join a gang. A new member could be sponsored by an existing member. This new member could be a family member, or someone who is well known by the rest of the gang. New gang members can also commit crime to show their loyalty and willingness to back up the gang. The crimes can range from shoplifting beer, to graffiti vandalism to murder.

If several people start their own gang, they are considered the original members or original gangsters. This term is sometimes abbreviated as “OG.” Some gang members literally grow up in a gang family. Mother or father or both, along with siblings, all belong to the same gang. These individuals are sometimes referred to as being “generational” gang members.

New female gang members can complete any or all of the previously mentioned initiation rituals. Prospective female gang members can also be “sexed-in” to a street gang. Any number of male gang members of the same gang can be sex partners for the new female member. The number of male partners can be as high as 14 or 15. Female gang members who are sexed-in sometimes are treated differently than those females who are jumped-in. Some gangs even videotape these initiation rituals.