Risky business

History's Gangland digs deep to uncover real stories from within American gang culture. It's proven to be a hit with audiences, cops and even the odd gang member.
July 1, 2009

Every production comes with its own risks, as producers and broadcasters bank on which shows will be hits and which will fade into obscurity. History’s Gangland, however, presents a whole new level of risk: in making a show about the most notorious gangs in America, its producers have to be very careful not to become targets. Even a hit show isn’t much defense against an AK-47.

You won’t hear much about Gangland Productions, the company behind the series – and for good reason. To get the real stories on infamous gangs such as the Crips, MS-13 and the Hell’s Angels, the show’s production team relies on deep connections on both sides of the law, and the sensitive nature of these relationships requires a delicate approach to public relations. (A History exec declined to comment for this story citing the show’s sensitive subject matter.)

‘Let’s just say there are a lot of knuckleheads out there,’ says ‘D,’ a show runner on Gangland, who asked to have his full name withheld for security reasons. D. says although there haven’t been any significant threats directed at the show’s producers, they know the dangers of probing into a world where loyalty and secrecy are held up as unimpeachable ideals. To mitigate any danger, they draw on their tight relationship with law enforcement, which gives them both security and an uncommon level of access.

‘There’s a strange relationship that police officers and gang members form,’ says Sgt. Richard Valdemar, who spent 33 years specializing in gangs with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and has served as a technical consultant for Gangland. ‘It’s about being able to speak to people in a civil way. The people with the best relationship… come up with the best information.’

The police, however, can only get the show’s producers so far; sometimes, getting the story means hitting the streets.

‘We had a producer that was doing a show about female gang members, who had to drive around Compton with the sister of the founder of the Bloods gang in L.A.,’ D. says. He also relates the story of meeting the ex-head of the Pagans motorcycle gang. ‘He came in with a glock and two strippers on each arm… and since then, he’s been picked up on charges for attempted murder.’

While it is colorful characters like these that have won the show high ratings and a large audience over its four seasons (a fifth is in progress), D. says Gangland‘s in-depth storytelling also fills a gap in traditional news reporting.

‘A lot of the time these stories are underreported,’ he says. ‘You turn on the local news and they say, ‘A body of a man was found in a parked car on the West Side of Chicago; police think it was gang related.’ And there’s no follow-up. Where that story leaves off is where the series picks up.’

Despite all the challenges the team faces in producing the show – making contacts deep in the prison system, navigating tricky border crossings to get the scoop on Mexican drug cartels, being stonewalled by tight-lipped motorcycle gangs – D. says it’s worth it to see the show succeed, not just with average television audiences, but with the people it profiles.

‘It all starts with our development team working with various police departments and gang units, getting the real scoop of what’s going on on the ground in a specific city,’ D. says. ‘Cops love this show.’ Valdemar, who also works as an instructor for law enforcement training consultants PMW Associates, says the appeal isn’t just the storytelling – it’s also practical. ‘They produce a product that I, in law enforcement, can use as a training tool,’ he says.

Unexpectedly, positive responses sometimes come from the other end of the justice spectrum, too. ‘Time and time again, I’m surprised at how many gang members like working with us,’ D. says.

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