"These Facebook and Instagram postings are sometimes our most reliable evidence and they become our most reliable informants in identifying who's in the gang," says Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. "Gang members are Instagramming pictures of themselves with guns and cash. They are communicating about where to meet before they do something related to gang activities. They brag about what they've done after the fact. We see that again and again and again in these cases."
And yet, Vance also says social media should be viewed skeptically — some kids brag about things that aren't true or just want to look tough — and a Facebook post would not be reason alone to file charges.
Online messages, though, were critical in the East Harlem investigation. By the start of 2014, 53 of the 63 charged had pleaded guilty. And in November, then New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly offered an endorsement: Hailing a 50 percent drop in homicides among those 13 to 21 since 2012, Kelly said a new strategy "including attention to the new battleground of social media has resulted in lives being saved in New York City, mostly minority young men."
New York isn't unique. In Houston, police say gang members have used social media to sell meth, marijuana and heroin and provoke shootings as initiation rites. In Daytona Beach, Fla., five kids who claimed to be in a gang brutally assaulted a teen and within hours, cell phone video of the attack was on Facebook. And in Chicago, gang warfare has migrated from the streets to cyberspace and back again — with deadly results.
Probably the most high-profile case unfolded in 2012 on the city's South Side. It began with an online feud involving insults, gangs and two rappers, Keith Cozart, better known as Chief Keef, and Joseph 'Lil JoJo' Coleman. Hours after Coleman tweeted his location, he was fatally shot while riding on a bicycle. Soon after, Chief Keef's Twitter account carried mocking comments about the death. He claimed his account had been hacked.
"We see a lot of taunting," says Nick Roti, chief of the Chicago police organized crime bureau. "There are guys standing on a street corner, they take a picture of themselves holding a gun (the message being), 'I always stand up for my 'hood.' They're basically daring someone to shoot them."
They do the reverse as well, posting videos of themselves on enemy territory, scrawling profanity on walls, then egging their rivals to come out and defend their turf.
In many cases, gangs do little to hide their identities, even though they know they're leaving an electronic fingerprint for police.
"I guess the need for recognition and street cred must outweigh the potential for being arrested and charged," Roti says. "They don't seem to be that worried. They may feel they can hide in numbers. There are millions of pictures and posts. (Their attitude is) 'I'll take my chances.'"
It doesn't always work. Last summer, when a North Side gang in Chicago rapped about the death of a reported rival on YouTube, spewing profanities and pointing guns, police responded. Two felons in the video were taken into custody for violating parole and probation, police say, and 38 grams of crack cocaine were seized along with one of the weapons featured.
Del Toro, the YMCA program director who works in Logan Square and Humboldt Park — neighborhoods struggling with gang problems — says the swaggering is a dramatic departure from the past.
"You can now gangbang from your living room," says Del Toro, now an ordained minister. "Who would have thought that 20 years ago? ... Back in the '80s or '90s, gang members didn't want to take their pictures. Now they're all over YouTube."
And that can attract kids, says Eddie Bocanegra, co-executive director of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago's Youth Safety and Violence Prevention program. "In the past you would have gangs approach you and say, 'Listen we're from the 'hood. Maybe you should get involved.' Now the kids are going to the gangs saying, 'I saw this. How can I be a part of it?'"
Sometimes, the motive is purely social — a kid with 10 Facebook friends can expand his network by hundreds. "It's a sense of belonging." he says.
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