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How Big A Problem Are Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs?

A shootout between rival biker gangs in Waco, Texas, on Sunday left nine people dead, 18 hospitalized and more than 170 people under arrest. The fight happened at an enormous scale, with police continuing to recover weapons from the scene on Monday and jails still working to process everyone. But how big a problem are outlaw motorcycle gangs in the United States?

In the FBI’s 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment, law enforcement professionals estimated that there were 44,000 members of outlaw motorcycle gangs in the U.S., affiliated with any of approximately 3,000 active gangs. In total, such gangs amount to just 2.5 percent of all gang members in the U.S., according to the 2013 National Gang Report from the FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center.

Although outlaw motorcycle gangs are only a sliver of all gangs, law enforcement professionals view them as more dangerous than their size would suggest, at least according to the center’s 2013 survey. In that survey, 14 percent of law enforcement professionals said an outlaw biker gang was the most problematic gang in their jurisdiction. Eleven percent of respondents said outlaw biker gangs were the most violent type of gang in their jurisdiction.

It is possible that outlaw biker gangs wind up as the No. 1 threat in many jurisdictions because of their geographical distribution, rather than as a result of their patterns of violence. A highly mobile gang that operates outside of cities has the chance to affect more jurisdictions than an urban gang concentrated within one city.

When law enforcement professionals evaluate types of gangs individually, outlaw biker gangs are ranked as a little less threatening. In the National Gang Threat Assessment two years earlier, when law enforcement professionals evaluated each type of gang in their jurisdiction, outlaw biker gangs were the least likely to be graded as a significant threat.1 Survey respondents ranked each type of gang (national-level street gangs, prison gangs, outlaw motorcycle gangs and neighborhood-based gangs) as a “significant threat,” “moderate threat,” “low threat,” “not present,” or “unknown.”

Outlaw motorcycle gangs were ranked as a significant threat by just 8.7 percent of respondents. Neighborhood-based gangs were ranked as a significant threat by 45.3 percent of respondents, the highest proportion of any gang type. Outlaw motorcycle gangs were rated as a low threat by 41.5 percent of law enforcement professionals, making them the most likely to be rated “low” of any group.

Outlaw motorcycle gangs aren’t the most serious threat that most law enforcement professionals see in their jurisdictions, but the brutality of fights like the one in Waco still makes these biker groups a more serious threat than implied by their membership numbers alone.

Footnotes

  1. The FBI report did not specify whether respondents were asked to think about threat level in terms of frequency of violence, severity of violence or simply as a holistic assessment.

Leah Libresco is a former news writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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