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.”