LOS ANGELES -- New members of the Folks gang in Pine Bluff, Ark., must commit a burglary as an initiation rite. Youths in San Antonio have proudly handed business cards bearing their gang's name, Damage, Inc., to police at a carnival. Gang members in Chicago freely move through public-housing complexes, occupying vacant apartments and intimidating residents while expanding drug sales.

No matter how often television news and dramatic shows highlight Los Angeles's notorious Crips and Bloods, this is not the only city with a gang problem.

Urban America's assortment of gang names, symbols and styles of violence and crime is so varied and often so different from its California counterpart that widespread confusion has resulted. Some police officers even have suggested their jurisdictions do not have a problem because their gangs are nothing like those in Los Angeles.

"Denial is a real major problem," said Cary Gaines, executive director of the Arkansas Sheriff's Association. "People just don't want to admit there's a problem with gangs."

The confusion stems from lack of a comprehensive definition of gangs, according to Armando Morales, psychiatry professor at the UCLA School of Medicine. What the police department may label a gang-related homicide in Los Angeles often is called a drug-related homicide in the District of Columbia.

"Definitions can lead to different types of conclusions, and different communities use different definitions," Morales said.

At the federally funded National Conference on Substance Abuse and Gang Violence here in March, Morales cited a 1984 article published in Social Service Review to show that Chicago reduced its gang homicide rate merely by changing the criteria.

According to a federally funded survey of anti-gang programs by the University of Chicago, in cities with a "broad and inclusive" definition of a gang incident, such as Los Angeles, gang homicides number between 25 and 30 percent "of all homicides in recent years." In cities with a "more restrictive definition," such as Chicago, they account for 10 percent.

"Just the presence of gangs does not mean there is a problem," Morales said.

Gangs range in membership from several hundred to as few as three members. "It's not the size of the gang that matters, it's the behavior," Morales said.

The University of Chicago survey said criminal youth gangs are found in "almost all" 50 states, including Alaska and Hawaii, and in the District and Puerto Rico.

Los Angeles has the worst gang problem and the most gang members. Hispanics comprise 59 percent and blacks 39 percent of the 78,233 gang members on the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department records. Asian gang members, increasing in numbers, account for 2 percent with 1,540 members, and 72 white gang members are known. Gang-related homicides numbered 554 last year.

A survey of some major cities indicates very different gang systems and responses to them:

District of Columbia -- Gangs were little more than rough neighborhood clubs that held meetings and elected officers when Oliver Cromwell, public information officer for the Department of Public and Assisted Housing, grew up in LeDroit Park.

"If you grew up in a particular neighborhood, it was difficult not to join," Cromwell, 50, said. "You identified a gang with a community."

One day, police stopped Cromwell as he walked to church wearing a long green trench coat, similar to those favored by gang members who had beaten a resident of the neighborhood. "My detainment was indicative of how vigilant the police were," he said.

Cromwell said gangs later "died out." With school busing accelerating in the 1960s and communities not as closely bonded, "people started moving," he said. Today, gangs in the area have no names, no turf and no organization, Cromwell said. "They are basically groups of kids."

Sgt. Joe Gentile, public information officer for the police department, said the District has "independent entrepreneurs" and loosely knit groups of people selling drugs for personal needs. Gangs are not defined on police records, which show only drug organizations and criminal groups.

Of 434 homicides last year, 60 percent were drug-related with no classification for gang-related homicides, he said. "At least half" of the drug-related homicides result from turf battles between drug dealers, authorities said.

District drug organizations are similar to gangs in that they have territories aligned around drug sales. Drug kingpin Rayful Edmond III was convicted of operating a continuing criminal enterprise and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, and more than 30 others have been convicted in connection with his operation.

Boston -- Walter Miller, former director of the Justice Department's Youth Gang Survey, said, "It's bad in Boston. Gang-related homicides are increasing quite steadily." Last year, nine of 16 drug-related homicides involved gang members, compared with three of 23 in 1988, he said.

Police stood guard outside Georgette Watson's 24-hour report-a-crime hotline in Roxbury, Mass., for a month when gang members placed a bounty on Watson -- $5,000 for her assassination or $1,000 to shoot and wound her.

Watson had encountered trouble with gang members by supporting the police department's stop-and-frisk policy. Although the bounty offer ended Jan. 1 without incident, she requests police escorts when venturing into certain gangs' neighborhoods.

Police officials estimate gangs have 1,000 members, but Miller said about twice that number belong to 30 to 35 identifiable gangs.

Eighty percent of the city's gang members are black, and 13 percent are Hispanic, particularly Puerto Rican, Miller said. "No other ethnic group figures significantly," he said.

Chicago -- The situation is similar to that in Los Angeles, primarily involving blacks and Hispanics, according to Sollie Vincent, a commander in the police department. There are 12,000 to 15,000 gang members with police records, and 125 known gangs.

Last year's 72 gang-related homicides were 12 more than in 1988. "It's the same problem all over -- too many guns available to kids," Vincent said. "If weapons weren't available, {gangs} would find other ways of resolving conflicts."

New York -- Although Detective Joseph Gallagher, a police department spokesman, said gangs have not presented "major difficulties," New York Newsday reported in April that confidential police department documents show "at least" 38 youth gangs in the city. Transit authorities identified another six gangs in the extensive subway system.

Sgt. David Harewood, head of the School Outreach Program for the Transit Authority police, said he first recognized gangs as a problem in June 1989 but said trouble is "not an everyday occurrence."

"If the opportunity is right," he said, gang members "may strike. If the opportunity is not right, they won't." New York is among several cities with a gang intelligence unit.

Experts said gangs act as substitute families for members. As jobs keep parents away from home, children suffer "emotional neglect," Morales said. "The gang is their substitute family where their emotional needs are met."

Some middle-income families suffer similar financial and psychological trauma. "Now we're seeing a growth of white middle-class gangs calling themselves 'stoners' or 'skinheads,' " Morales said. "They're coming about for the same reason as lower-class gangs -- emotional neglect from the family."

Irving Spergel, director of the University of Chicago survey, said gang members are "aspects of a rather complicated structure," the result of lack of jobs and nothing to do at home.

"There's not a place for them in society," he said, "and the gang becomes a support structure."

Staff writer Nancy Lewis contributed to this report.