Crime & Courts

June 10, 2012

Police: Street gangs embrace social media, too

Your friends and favorite businesses aren’t the only ones who have flocked to Facebook in recent years.

Your friends and favorite businesses aren’t the only ones who have flocked to Facebook in recent years.

Police say gang members have fully embraced social media, too. Gangs such as the Crips and the Spanish Gangster Disciples have their own fan pages.

They’re posting pictures of social events, adding friends, commenting on posts “just like everyone else,” said Detective Chad Beard of the Wichita Police Department’s gang and felony assault unit.

Beard gave a presentation on gangs, the Internet and social media at last week’s Midwest Law Enforcement Conference on Gangs and Drugs, held in Wichita.

Facebook has become so pervasive as a communication tool for gang members that gang graffiti on fences, houses and buildings has reduced dramatically around Wichita, police officials say.

“Most of our (remaining) gang graffiti is with our Hispanic gangs,” Beard said in an interview after his presentation.

It’s much easier to post photos or messages on Facebook than to paint symbols on a fence or wall in the middle of the night, officials said.

“It’s an easy way to rep their set,” Beard said, using the lingo for representing a subset of a gang.

“You get more viewers, too, of your graffiti” on Facebook than you might from a fixed location, said Lt. Scott Heimerman, head of the gang unit.

Monitoring the social media activity of known and suspected gang members has become a key component of tracking gang activity, Heimerman said. Gang members commonly use social media to rally support for a clash with a rival gang, he said.

And social media allows things to move quickly: they may issue a call to meet at a given location in 10 or 15 minutes for a showdown, he said.

“The logistics of it is almost overwhelming at times,” Heimerman said. “It’s hard for a detective to maintain an active case load plus monitor the social media.”

Social media has changed the landscape in other ways, he said. For one thing, trends or fads are making it to Kansas from the coasts much more rapidly than before.

“It would take months for those fads to make it from either coast to here,” Heimerman said. “Now it can be as quick as a week or two, just because of social media.”

While social media presents challenges to law enforcement officers trying to prevent gang crime, Beard and Heimerman said, it also presents opportunities.

Photos, posts and comments can serve as “bread crumbs” for officers trying to track criminal behavior or identify suspects.

“There’ll be some Facebook pages where there’ll be group photos—this guy we do know, this guy we don’t know,” Heimerman said. “Now he’s on the radar and we can start looking at him.

“It doesn’t automatically jump them up to ‘instant gang member,’ ” he said. “It does open the avenue for more research.”

It would take nearly a handful of people working full time to monitor all of the gang activity that’s on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, police say. And that’s just local chatter.

Predictably, Heimerman said, gangs are using social media to recruit new members. That means it’s important for parents to monitor their children’s online activity.

“That may be a key there as a parent,” he said. “If your kids aren’t up to anything wrong, they shouldn’t have an issue” with allowing parents to monitor their social media accounts.

The emergence of social media doesn’t mean community awareness is no longer important, Beard said. If anything, it’s more valuable than ever.

“We need the community’s help in seeing stuff,” Beard said. “They’re the eyes and ears.

“And a lot of times, if they see stuff that’s going on, in social media or on the streets, they need to let us know. We can’t be everywhere.”

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