For monitoring gang activity, police have a free intelligence-gathering tool at their disposal: social media. This is just one example from Newport Virginia.
“The graffiti of old is now Facebook,” said Sgt. L.W. Spencer, who leads the gang enforcement unit at Newport Police Department. “They’re trying to portray a certain image in everything that they’re doing on Facebook.”
The communication and activities that play out on the streets have been extended to the Internet and sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube, said Executive Director George Knox of the National Gang Crime Research Center, which supplies research to police. Gangs have long maintained a presence on the Internet, and the popularity of smartphones just makes it easier.
“From the perspective of police investigators, this is an intelligence gold mine because this is open source information,” Knox said. “It’s due diligence for any police department to take that stuff seriously.”
For instance, police made connections between several of the “Dump Squad” gang members in Newport News from a rap video they produced and released on YouTube more than two years ago, Spencer said, watching the video and pointing to the young men that were arrested. Group photos on Facebook show youth displaying gang hand signs and wearing gang colors or other symbols. Young people use Twitter like “walkie talkies” to alert each other to police presence in the area, Spencer said.
In April 2011, 11 men were charged in federal court with different gang-related crimes as members would identify their West Coast Bloods affiliation through Twitter, Facebook and MySpace photos, videos and posts, according to the indictment. The accused members of the Portsmouth-based gang have since been found guilty on various counts, with one man sentenced to life in prison on two counts of murder, according to online court records.
But social media alone doesn’t finish the investigation, as police have to corroborate and confirm any information, Spencer said. To use Facebook information in court, police also need to file search warrants.
“That’s just a piece of the puzzle,” said Sgt. Jason Price, a spokesman for the Hampton Police Division. “It just confirms what we already know.”
Newport News has about 60 active gangs, Spencer said. Hampton has about 10, said Sgt. Derrick Woolaston, supervisor of the police gang unit in Hampton.
The gangs may be as few as three people and are usually a neighborhood group claiming affiliation with either the Bloods or Crips, Spencer said. Often, police aren’t dealing with rival gang fighting so much as infighting, Spencer explained. However, what makes it difficult to accurately tally the number of Peninsula gangs, comprised mostly of youth, is that members switch from one gang to another, and even to supposedly rival gangs, Spencer said.
This is evident in Newport News police seeing more “amateur-like” graffiti combining symbols, Spencer said. Hampton is seeing less “tagging” and the graffiti there is also filled with mistakes, Woolaston said. Local gangs aren’t organized as portrayed on TV, and youth will join and switch gangs for acceptance or protection, Woolaston explained.
“There’s less criminality and more socialization,” Woolaston said, adding Hampton police are seeing fewer gang-related crimes compared to five years ago.
Youth continue to be influenced by the glamorization of the gang lifestyle as it appears in movies and music, police said.
The people committing the crimes would do so whether they were in a gang or not, Woolaston explained. Even so, proving gang affiliation in court can tack on more time for sentencing and make it easier for police to prosecute a gang’s future criminal activities, police said. Spencer said the streets in Newport News are safer than 15 years ago although police continue to monitor gang hot spots in the Southeast community, like 23rd and Chestnut Avenue, and 33rd Street and Roanoke Avenue.
As far as how gang members use social media, each person or gang member is different. Spencer said youth seem to use it to portray an image of “money, power and respect,” although some use it as an intimidation tool. Knox said gang members will post or message witnesses to keep them from testifying. Spencer said he hasn’t heard of gangs recruiting through social media in Newport News, although Knox said this happens across the country. In 2008, Hampton police charged a 15-year-old boy with making gang threats and recruitment of persons for a criminal street gang through MySpace.
Spencer advises parents to know what their kids are doing online, to pay attention to who “friends” them on Facebook and to be wary when their children don’t accept their friendship.