Law enforcement monitors gangs' social media movements

Inside the Baltimore City Police Watch Center

BALTIMORE - Tweets, posts, pictures, videos.

Social media has changed the way we communicate, and increasingly, the way police investigate criminal activity.

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Inside the Baltimore Police Department's watch center is the hub from which city police can view hundreds of crime cameras, pull up street corners and follow suspicious activity sometimes in progress — fancy hardware, increasingly complementing witty software.

Gallery | Take a peek inside the watch center

"My specific focus is to try to track emerging patterns and trends," said Nicole DeMotto, the newly minted director of the watch center , who has only been on the job since mid-summer.

Mining social media for clues on crime and gang activity is largely an analytical process of identifying words, phrases and determining meaning in a street language that is constantly changing.

It is a constant fight to crack the criminal code of the digital world. For example, a lick may mean a robbery; t-roll is slang for drugs and if you're green-lighted, then at one time that meant a hit was a go.

"We've got software that we could use that searches through all kinds of things on the Internet, social media wise, and then we can find those terms and if we can find this term within a certain number of words to this term, then we have to key in on that.  It's a lot of nerdy math things," DeMotto said.

It's a process that uses book smarts to beat street smarts, and when they key in on something it is about being able to run a preventative defense.

And if the watch center is the brain, the detectives on the street are the brawn; a symbiotic relationship of sharing intelligence gleaned in a room above the street with the information gathered on it.

"People say and do things all the time and don't realize who is watching and who's seeing it.  I mean everybody, everyone does it and they don't realize the hands that that information is getting into," one Baltimore gang detective said.

Those city detectives tell us they are finding the advent of social media allows a once fractured and separate neighborhood gang structure in Baltimore to now communicate effortlessly, organize and fortify their message or violence; spreading the word through images on Instagram, place pages on Facebook, hashtags on Twitter and even through Myspace.

It is an emboldened criminal enterprise police say, but one increasingly leaving a trail of cyber crumbs they are beginning to better follow.

"When they are holding meetings or gatherings at certain locations, we get that information and we use that to enforce. Do our enforcement," said the detective, who added the approach has "absolutely" stopped a few incidents in the past.

But success is hard to measure in this new online world, still the effort to fight gang crime in it is becoming standard in police departments all around the country. 

But the fight looks different in the suburbs, it is smaller and mostly trying to combat the gangs' targeted recruitment of children. That, police say, is easier to recruit in the digital age because there can be thousands of people on someone's friends list.       

Using social media as a recruitment tool is a tactic Anne Arundel County gang detectives have been noticing for the last few years.

"They are using all facets of them between Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, even Myspace which is, many people don't use anymore, it is starting to come back.  They are using all forms of those in order for recruitment," said an Anne Arundel County gang detective.      

While territory in the county still rules, membership for gangs is the new commodity.

Videos flashing money, women, even guns all target children as young as middle school age.

It is a hyper-focused viral attempt that detectives say has grown and strengthened gangs in Anne Arundel County.

"They will use that and I've seen the membership grow from 10 to certain neighborhood crews that are over 70," the Anne Arundel County detective said.

But as the gang structure grows through social media, so does the law enforcement efforts to stem it.

Anne Arundel County has begun its own focus on monitoring and interacting within the social media construct to gain information to support investigations; even going so far as to create fake profiles to communicate and glean important information.

The Anne Arundel County detective said that social media effort has helped gather information for search warrants.

"After certain crimes of violence such as shootings and stabbings have occurred, detectives have used [social media], have been able to track down suspects using it because of the information that has been posted on there," the detective said.

Trying to beat and join them on what for now is still largely a vast, lawless frontier.

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