Is 'Gang' Becoming a Politically Incorrect Word in DC?

November 18th, 2007 11:50 PM

In a report ("D.C. Poised to Exceed 2006 Homicide Totals"; HT Hot Air) on overall urban homicide, Allison Klein at the Washington Post used a word that I've never seen directly associated with criminal activity by groups of people, and she used it twice.

Here's the first:

The number of killings in the District this year already has reached the homicide count for all of last year, reversing a trend in which deadly violence steadily declined over the past four years.

With six weeks left on the 2007 calendar, the District has recorded 169 homicides.

"There's a whole lot of things that play into it," (D.C. Police Chief Cathy L.) Lanier said. "It's hard to say any one contributing factor is driving the homicides."

Among her theories: Neighborhood crews are having more violent flare-ups, and criminals are using assault rifles and other guns with more firepower.

Did the police chief really say "crews"? Note that the sentence has no quotations marks.

Here's the second example:

Assistant Police Chief Winston Robinson, who oversees criminal investigations, pointed to more guns, drug battles and clashing neighborhood youths as causes for the increase.

"A lot of it is neighborhood crews. They go back and forth with each other," Robinson said. "There's turf issues, arguments over girls, arguments over something that may have happened that nobody can remember."

Thirty-eight homicides this year are blamed on arguments.

Clearly, the District's police chief and her assistant are talking about groups of people who have for decades have been referred to as "gangs." The word "gang" does not appear in Klein's online report.

Of the 10 definitions of "crew" at, only two seem capable of describing a criminal gang, and it's quite a stretch in both cases:

1. a group of persons involved in a particular kind of work or working together: the crew of a train; a wrecking crew.
7. any force or band of armed men.

In both definitions, it would seem that you cannot use "crew" to describe a gang without the use of an adjective describing their activity. The term "neighborhood crews" totally fails to do that; it could just as well be a group of lawn-cutters or landscapers.

Now it gets interesting.

According to this online link, in the November 19 print edition of the Washington Post on Page B01, the article headline became was less specific ("Slaying Toll Already Equals Last Year's"; note no reference to DC until the subheadline), and the word "crews" was changed to "gangs" in the first instance:

(relevant portion from first example above) Among her (D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier's) theories: Neighborhood gangs are having more violent flare-ups, and criminals are using assault rifles and other guns with more firepower.

Well, did the chief originally say "gangs" or crews"? The second use of "crews" was not changed because is was part of a direct quote (i.e., inside quote marks) from the assistant police chief.

What's going on here? I believe it's one or more of the following:

  • The DC Police appear to have developed a fondness for the term "crew," at least if this Google web search on "district of columbia gangs crews" (without quotes) is any indication.
  • The police may have some justification, at least internally, for adopting "crew," if the gangs themselves are using the term more frequently. But for public or press statements, using "crews" doesn't seem to be a particularly good idea.
  • The Post's change from "crews" in the online version to "gangs" in the print edition may indicate that it the paper is having an internal tug of war over which term is correct, or more politically correct.

This bears watching. "Crews" just don't sound as threatening as "gangs." Why anyone thinks that it's a good idea to make gangs seem less menacing is a mystery, as the people they kill are still every bit as dead.

Here's another interesting edit from the online to the print edition:

(online) The majority of the slayings -- 128 -- were carried out with firearms, a longstanding problem in the District. Another 21 were done with knives.

(print) The majority of the slayings -- 130 -- were carried out with firearms. Twenty-one were committed with knives.

Never mind the small numerical change. It shouldn't go unnoticed that the District's ban on gun ownership was not cited by the police as a possible element in its high homicide rate, nor was it considered a possibility by Klein or her editors. Those same editors may have edited out the "longstanding" problem with gun murders to avoid having readers think of its "longstanding" and clearly ineffective "ban" on guns.


Cross-posted at