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Gang-related violence: A criminologist and detective weigh in on youth involvement

Police said they were investigating "gang-related shootings" in the early hours of Jan. 11 when Scranton Det. Kyle Gilmartin was shot. A 20-year-old suspect has been charged in the attack.
Aimee Dilger
Police said they were investigating "gang-related shootings" in the early hours of Jan. 11 when Scranton Det. Kyle Gilmartin was shot. A 20-year-old suspect has been charged in the attack.

In the early morning on Jan. 11, Scranton Police Det. Kyle Gilmartin was shot twice in the head. He survived and left the hospital for a rehab facility nearly two weeks later.

Pennsylvania State Police arrested a 20-year-old Lackawanna County man for the attack, and a 19-year-old faces charges for earlier, related shootings, according to a criminal complaint.

At multiple press conferences, law enforcement said the suspects were livestreaming the events of the evening on social media, firing weapons recklessly into homes “related to individuals who had gang association” in Scranton.

Lackawanna County District Attorney Mark Powell said Scranton Police detectives were investigating those shootings when Det. Gilmartin was injured, but he declined to name a specific gang.

“Because of the nature of the investigation – we’re not going to reveal our gang intelligence,” he said.

WVIA News spoke with a researcher and criminologist about how gang-related crimes are hard to track outside of law enforcement agencies. A member of the Northeast Pennsylvania Gang Task Force also weighs in on what he sees as gang trends in the region.

Prof. Michael J. Jenkins is executive director at the Center for the Analysis and Prevention of Crime (CAPoC) at the University of Scranton. He’s also chair of the Department of Criminal Justice, Cybersecurity and Sociology.

“When it comes to tracking gang activity, there’s a couple reasons why it’s difficult for outside researchers to get access to data,” Jenkins said. Like DA Powell noted, law enforcement is reluctant to share details of investigations.

“But the second is because of the overlap between the gangs and juveniles,” Jenkins said, “and juvenile data is even more highly protected from a legal perspective.”

There were 548 reported violent crimes in Scranton between 2021 and 2022, according to Jenkins, who accessed data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program and the National Incident-Based Reporting System from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Of those violent crimes, 36% of offenders were between the ages of 10 and 29 years old. About 20% were committed by people whose age was unknown, meaning they likely weren’t apprehended.

But examining the victims’ ages can possibly provide insights into who’s committing many of the crimes, Jenkins said. About half of the victims were between 10 and 29 at the time of their attack.

“The most reliable relationship that we have in criminology is this ‘age-crime curve,’ where we know that a large portion of crime and criminal violence is going to be disproportionately committed by individuals between the ages of 16 and 24,” he said.

That could be one reason local officials announced additional funding for the Scranton School District, with hopes the school board will prioritize education and outreach to prevent youth crimes.

“The [gang] members are getting younger and younger” in Monroe County, said Mario Orlando, detective with the Monroe County DA’s Office and member of the NEPA Gang Task Force.

“It’s predatory if you think about it… Older gentlemen who see that there’s an individual craving attention, craving a family of some sort – this is a pseudo family,” he said.

And a trend, especially among young people, is heavy use of social media. According to the criminal complaint in the Scranton police shooting, detectives were monitoring the suspects’ Instagram accounts as they livestreamed their crimes to their followers.

It’s a sign of the times, Orlando said. He called social media platforms “the walls of the new age.”

“Where they used to spray paint and put their tags up… they actually have a way to televise what they do,” he said, “show and prove that this is me that is doing it, because a camera doesn’t lie.”

Movies versus reality

Oftentimes people think about depictions in movies when they hear about gangs, Jenkins said, but the reality is much different.

“I think the idea of a gang suggests some level of formality in organization… they look at these gangs as being focused primarily in planning and committing crimes, that individuals are lifetime committed members.”

“It might be what we’re seeing in Scranton – as we are in most places – we use the term ‘crew’ to discuss what’s really a more informal group of teenagers and young men. They’re organized geographically,” Jenkins said. “Within that crew you’re going to have only a small portion of individuals who are involved in criminal violence, who are involved so regularly and who will maintain their criminal lifestyle for multiple years.”

Though when law enforcement sees acts of violence and retaliation, referring to it as “gang-related” can be a bit of a shorthand.

“Because first of all it is simple, and you’re trying to communicate sometimes some very complex situations as simply as possible,” he said, but the term “gang” also has a lot of baggage. In smaller cities, like Scranton, there may be much looser affiliations to national or organized gangs.

Jenkins said it’s important to examine social factors with regards to gang-related violence: how do over-incarceration, addiction and economic divides play a role?

“I think there’s also an opportunity to step back and think as a community and as a society, what are our values? How do we come together to reengage those values to affect the individuals who are choosing to get involved in criminal violence?”

Later this year, Muflehun, a Washington D.C.-based policy center, is expected to deliver a report to the city of Scranton, identifying gaps in community safety. Scranton used $70,000 from the Office of Community and Economic Development with hopes the report can prevent community violence and provide insights for future plans.

Officials say legislative grants of $100,000 each for the Luzerne and Lackawanna County DA’s offices and $2 million in Ready to Learn block grants for Scranton schools will also be used to prevent youth crime.

Corrected: January 25, 2024 at 11:52 AM EST
A previous version of this story listed different years associated with crime data in Scranton.
Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's All Things Considered. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.

You can email Tom at tomriese@wvia.org
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