Research Article: Outlaw biker violence and retaliation

Date Published: May 8, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Christian Klement, Mark Lauchs.


The number of outlaw bikers is growing globally. Despite this, little research exists on these groups and their alleged violent tendencies. To address this, the current paper uses unique data to examine whether gang violence causes outlaw biker violence. The period examined runs from mid-2008 until early 2012 during which violent clashes occurred between outlaw bikers and street gang members involved in an alleged conflict in Copenhagen, Denmark. A precise description of each individual act of violence would make it possible to identify whether specific acts were carried out in furtherance of the alleged conflict. This would allow one to determine whether outlaw bikers commit violence on behalf of their club. However, such knowledge is unavailable. The paper therefore takes a different approach by examining whether acts of violence committed by the two groups are statistically associated. In other words, it considers whether one or more acts can be described as retaliatory during the observation periods. The sample consists of 640 individuals involved with the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club or with non-biker street gangs–both of which are present in Copenhagen. Statistical models are used to predict 143 violent events committed by 196 outlaw bikers. The results suggest that violence committed by gang members predicts violence committed by outlaw bikers. This indicates that violent acts committed by outlaw bikers are at least partly a form of retaliation carried out on behalf of their club. The paper expands the literature on the kinds of inter-group, micro-level processes that can lead to reciprocal violence by including outlaw bikers in a literature that has previously focused on non-biker street gangs.

Partial Text

While the global number of outlaw bikers and biker clubs is unknown, their presence seems to be growing. One of the most prominent of these clubs, the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, lists 466 chapters in 58 countries [1]. Another prominent club, the Bandidos Motorcycle Club, lists one or more chapters in 32 countries [2]. Both clubs originated in the US–the Hells Angels in 1948 and the Bandidos in the late 1960s, and the two clubs now have chapters in countries as diverse as Japan, Peru, Russia, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, and Denmark, in addition to many other European nations. Despite their global presence, very little research exists on outlaw bikers and their alleged violent tendencies as noted elsewhere [3].

It is well-established that gang members engage in high rates of offending and that this pattern is attributable to both selection and facilitation [13–15]. In short, not only are gang members intrinsically more likely to offend even before they become affiliated with a gang (selection), their likelihood of offending is also increased by this affiliation (facilitation). The facilitation effect is found in a majority of methodological contexts, as pointed out by Pyrooz and colleagues in their meta-analysis of 179 studies of the relationship between gang membership and offending [16]. Yet, as these authors also point out that “…the precise mechanisms of this relationship still remain unknown.” (page 384 in [16]). Based on their meta-analysis of studies from 17 countries, Pyrooz and colleagues conclude that the relationship between gang membership and offending in general is weaker in a European and Latin American context than it is in the US [16]. Whether the stronger relationship identified in the US can be attributed to different levels of gang organization, different socio-cultural conditions, or a combination of the two also remains unknown. The lack of knowledge on the facilitation processes in general as well as the weaker relationship between gang membership and offending in Europe as compared to the US increases the relevance of the current study which examines the facilitation of gang violence within a European context, i.e., whether reciprocal violence can account for increased levels of violence.

Outlaw motorcycle clubs are defined as motorcycle clubs that have not been registered with a nationwide motorcycle association, i.e., the American Motorcycle Association [62] or its European counterpart the Federation of European Motorcyclists’ Associations. The Hells Angels and Bandidos Motorcycle Clubs both count as such and have been present in Denmark since 1980 and 1993, respectively. The current study includes individuals active within the Hells Angels and the Bandidos, as well as their support and puppet clubs. Support and puppet clubs are included since they play an important part in the overall pattern of violent crime attributable to Danish outlaw bikers [8]. Individuals affiliated with the Hells Angels, the Bandidos, or any of their support or puppet clubs are referred to as HAMC individuals and BMC individuals, respectively.

Outlaw bikers and their predecessors have been active during several periods in Copenhagen’s recent history. In the 1980s a conflict between the Bullshit Motorcycle Club (founded 1979) and the Hells Angels (founded 1980) resulted in 13 deaths and the establishment of the Hells Angels as the dominant club [6]. Three years after two local clubs were given permission to form the first Danish chapters of the Bandidos in 1993, the so-called Great Nordic Biker War spread to Denmark with Hells Angels and Bandidos on opposing sides. After five individuals were killed in Denmark, the entire Scandinavian conflict was resolved in 1997 by agreement between the two clubs [6]. The content of the 1997 agreement was never made public. Nonetheless, it is alleged to have divided all major Danish cities into three groups: Hells Angels cities, Bandidos cities, and so-called open cities. Copenhagen was supposedly one of the Hells Angels cities.

The empirical part of this study is based on data from the Danish National Police and Statistics Denmark. The National Police provided information in June 2009, October 2012, and October 2013. This information concerned 2,647 unique individuals suspected of associating with groups involved in serious violent crime and/or the distribution of illegal drugs. The 2,647 individuals include persons affiliated with the Hells Angels, Bandidos, their respective support and puppet clubs, as well as members of the four Copenhagen street gangs that opposed the Hells Angels in the 2008–2012 conflict. The data come from the Police Intelligence Database (PID) where individuals related to outlaw biker and street gang crime are registered. PID data include national identification number, club/gang affiliation and PID date (i.e., the date an individual was first recorded in PID). Police squads specialized in outlaw bikers and street gangs and regular police patrols gather information and report it to the National Intelligence Center. Each piece of information is assessed in terms of investigative value and recorded in PID depending on the results of that evaluation. According to the National Police, affiliation with an outlaw motorcycle club is sufficient grounds for registration in PID [8, 10]. This practice is based on the assumption that in order to be affiliated with an outlaw club one essentially has to be involved in serious crime. The decision as to whether an individual suspected of street gang affiliation should be registered in PID is more difficult. This is because PID registration in this case requires that the individual be personally suspected of involvement in serious crime. Furthermore, gang affiliation must be substantiated. It is important to note that persons can be registered in PID without having been charged for or convicted of a crime.

This section explains the reasoning and means by which the time periods and sample analyzed in the current study were chosen. It also reflects on the validity and reliability of the data, ethical considerations in connection to the setup of the study, and provides descriptive statistics on the sample. This is done in order to make the basis of the study as transparent as possible.

The data used in this paper offer a rare opportunity to study whether violence committed by street gang members increases the likelihood that Hells Angels or their affiliates will commit violence. The sample is comprised of HAMC individuals where each individual in the sample has as many records as he has PID-active days during the period of study. Note that the sample grows over time as additional HAMC individuals are added to PID. Along with annual data on life circumstances, records on official criminal history are available to reduce the risk of selection bias.

Table 3 shows estimates of the effects of gang violence on violence committed by HAMC individuals derived from 24 separate Cox proportional hazards regression models with multiple events. As mentioned previously, the samples are derived from PID-active HAMC individuals, i.e., members of the Hells Angels and their affiliates connected to chapters in or around Greater Copenhagen. Data on BMC and street gang violence is based on activities in the same geographic region. Data on violent events is only included if an individual is found guilty in connection with the event. The independent variable of primary interest, STREET GANG VIOLENCE, is coded as an ordinal variable with three levels (0, 1, and >1). The third level, >1, indicates involvement in two or more violent acts by street gang members in a given period of time. There are two interrelated theoretical arguments for having applied this coding. The first theoretical argument is that if two gang members commit violence during the same short period of time, it seems more likely that their violence is related to gang activities than if it occurs across a broader spectrum of time. If activities are closely located in time, they are more likely to be related. Furthermore, gang related violence is more likely to be linked to the conflict with the Hells Angels than is individual violence. Here, it is important to bear in mind that not all violence committed by street gang members is related to the conflict with the Hells Angels. For instance, a gang member may commit violence in order to collect a drug debt or settle a personal dispute. The second theoretical argument is that a high level of violence generally seems more likely during a period of conflict than it would outside that period. This is why level three (>1) is of more theoretical interest than level two (1). The two theoretical arguments indicate that one would expect the association between level three of STREET GANG VIOLENCE and individual HAMC violence to be stronger than the association between level two STREET GANG VIOLENCE and individual HAMC violence. It turns out, that this is, in fact, the case.

Using a unique data set, this study examines and identifies a significant association at conventional statistical levels between violence committed by street gang members and violence committed by members of Hells Angels members and their support and puppet clubs in or around Greater Copenhagen. The association is identified within the context of an alleged conflict between the two groups. While the conflict may have been sparked by a personal dispute, subsequent violence seems to have arisen in connection with disagreements concerning control of the Copenhagen cannabis market and over subcultural status. The significant association between violence committed by gang members and that committed by HAMC individuals suggests that some of the violence committed by HAMC individuals is may be retaliation on behalf of the club. As such, the data support the cycle of gang violence model proposed by Decker [42] and expanded upon by Decker, Melde, and Pyrooz [17]. The study can therefore been seen as a test of whether their model is relevant in a specific European context involving groups that are not solely street gangs, i.e., outlaw motorcycle clubs. In other words, the results of the study indicate the presence of an inter-group micro-level process capable of generating reciprocal violence as predicted by Decker and colleagues in their cycle of gang violence model [17, 42]. The results suggest that violence committed by outlaw bikers has a dynamic character on a collective group level. The first violent act increases the risk of a second. Both of these tentatively identified characteristics of violence, i.e., its group nature and dynamic character, have been seen in North American street gang studies as well [46–47, 49]. The reciprocal violence might be both expressive and instrumental. As in North American street gang studies, the current study is unable to separate these forms of violence empirically [53].