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Antisocial side of social media helps police track gangs

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For weeks, police came up empty in their search for a gang member charged with distributing the drug ecstasy — until they turned to Facebook.

It took a few keystrokes for Prince George’s County officers to find their man’s user profile, where they had expected to see his usual rantings about police and coded tidbits about his chosen trade. But what they discovered was even more helpful: That very morning, the fugitive had posted a photograph of himself wearing what one officer described as a “very distinctive” purple and teal shirt.

A few hours later, a photo of the suspect in hand, officers spotted the alleged dealer on the street. “We picked him out right away,” said Sgt. John O’Donnell of the Prince George’s gang unit. “You couldn’t have missed him. He knew we were looking for him. But he couldn’t help himself from updating Facebook.”

The arrest of the alleged dealer highlights the increasing use of Facebook and other social networking sites by street and drug gangs to broadcast mes­sages, boast of successes and recruit new members, according to local and federal authorities. The sites offer a never-ending panoply of gang members’ comments about drug dealing, weapons and violence, as well as photographs of gang tattoos and of members flashing gang signs and standing under gang-related graffiti — an intelligence boon for law enforcement.

Police and federal agents say they often turn first to Facebook and Myspace, two popular social media outlets, to gather information about gangs, their members and their “friends.”

In Prince George’s, for example, undercover police have “friended” many gang members to help keep tabs on them and to better understand associations within the groups. Social media pages are not always available for public viewing, but users who do not properly set their security settings can leave their pages open for all to see, including the police.

Officers in the District comb sites to produce a weekly “Social Media” report for detectives on the latest information and trends related to D.C. street gangs, an ever-evolving universe of idiosyncratic neighborhood crews with assorted alliances and beefs.

“It’s like a spider web of connections,” said D.C. Police Lt. Michael Pavlik, head of the department’s intelligence unit. “You find one and track that down, and find a friend and then follow that. It’s a wealth of information, and it helps you keep up with them in a way we never imagined just a few years ago.”

Federal authorities have also tapped into Facebook and My­space for help in major gang investigations.

In one case, members of an alleged drug gang in Southeast Washington openly discussed the narcotics trade on a member’s Facebook profile page, according to court papers filed by the FBI in March.

“SNITCHES WANT ME LOCKED UP,” one alleged dealer wrote, the papers say. About 20 minutes later, he added that he had been frisked by police. “The streets don’t love me,” he wrote, according to agents. “Jumpers came out like I had a bomb strapped to me yesterday.”

Another alleged dealer complained in a lengthy comment string that someone was “watering down the pack” of PCP, a hallucinogen — a comment an FBI agent helpfully translated in court papers as the process of creating “more, though less potent, narcotics.”

The gang members were apparently so addicted to social media that jail didn’t stand in the way. Though the gang members in Southeast had been detained, their Facebook pages were still being updated “via Mobile Web” applications, agents wrote. “Life sucks right now,” one alleged dealer wrote. (Mobile phones and other such devices are barred at the D.C. jail and other such facilities.)

This year, agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement sought information from Myspace because members of MS-13, a notoriously violent street gang, were reportedly using the network to try to silence a federal witness. The witness had “an active order of execution, also known as a green light,” agents wrote in court papers, and a gang member was sending the man messages through Myspace in the apparent hope of luring him back to Washington.

ICE agents also obtained a court order in June to get information about the Facebook page of an alleged MS-13 member even though he had used a different name on his profile page. Agents were able to determine the user’s real identity after carefully studying photographs and other images the gang member had uploaded to the page, they wrote. Among those, agents wrote, was one of a tattoo on the suspect’s right shoulder that depicted a “laughing and crying face,” a common image among gang members that reflects the saying, “Laugh now, cry later.”

And last month, federal agents and Fairfax County police were able to track down a member of MS-13 who had been wanted for more than two years in a gang-
related stabbing. They checked his Facebook profile and found he had posted his new home town (New Orleans) and phone number. In his profile picture, the alleged gang member flashed an MS-13 symbol to the camera, according to police.

“Gangs are just following societal trends,” said a federal law enforcement official who spoke about the issue on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss how agents use social media to target gangs. “Facebook and Myspace are now some of their primary methods of communication.”

In the District, a small squad of officers monitors social networking sites for gang-related intelligence to help detectives solve crimes. Particularly helpful are group photographs and lists of “friends,” said Pavlik, whose unit produces the weekly report on gang use of social media.

The officers frequently come upon postings by members that threaten violence or refer to firearms, according to the lieutenant. “I got Dat 3 5 7, so don’t try your luck,” one teen wrote in a posting describing a .357-caliber handgun in his possession, according to Pavlik.

Pavlik said police take such comments seriously and have visited the homes of scores of teenagers in the past year to warn their parents and grandparents that such musings “could start a lot of real trouble.”

Photographs sometimes reveal men and women smoking marijuana, holding weapons or showing off gang-related tattoos. A favorite pose for teens is fanning out cash for the camera. “If you look closely, they are almost always holding $1 bills,” Pavlik said, laughing.

Still, despite having viewed thousands of Facebook and Myspace pages, D.C. police officials said it can be difficult to distinguish real threats from jokes or teenage bravado.

For example, Pavlik said, a suspected gang member recently posted a photograph of himself holding a pistol while sitting at a dinner table with a woman believed to be his grandmother. Police didn’t just rush off to arrest the man, however.

“The subject is now pictured with what seems to be a black gun,” the department’s social media report said. “It is unclear whether the weapon is real. . . . The shininess of the gun could be an indication that it is plastic.”

“You can’t just get a search warrant because some guy is holding what you think is a real gun or is photographed smoking what you think is marijuana,” said Pavlik, adding that the department has strict protocols that govern how officers monitor social media sites. “It may help later. But we have to respect the First Amendment rights of people.”

One photo recently posted to Facebook scared officers: It showed a gang member in Southeast Washington with a rocket launcher on his shoulder.

Upon closer inspection, the lieutenant said, officers realized the weapon had been Photo-shopped into the picture. Said Pavlik, “that was a relief.”

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