Vol. 76, No. 2External submissions

Gangs have a lot to share

Cincinnati police found out how much, using social media

Northside "Taliband" gang members flash gang signs in one of many images posted on social media. Credit: Cincinnati Police Department


When the term social media is used, both police and the general public most often think of the abilities to either connect or share content through the Internet-based social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram.

Facebook alone has more than 1.3 billion users who post more than 350 million photos and 20 million videos per day to their accounts. YouTube has more than 800 million users who upload 65 hours of video every minute of every day. And Twitter's 645 million users generate one billion tweets every five days. Social media is now an essential communication method in today's society.

Criminals have also adopted this medium and often use it to communicate with each other and brag about their illegal activities. As such, police need to look at the various applications of social media as an open source information platform in which criminal intelligence can be gathered 24 hours a day. Failing to do so means key pieces of an investigative puzzle may be overlooked.

Open source information, when combined with existing police data, can provide a comprehensive picture of offenders and their crime patterns. It can serve to confirm what investigators already suspect or it can point an investigation in a totally different direction.

Northside Taliband gang

The Cincinnati Police Department (CPD), along with its academic partners at the University of Cincinnati Institute of Crime Science (ICS), first started to look at the social networks of criminal street gangs or groups in 2008 during the investigation of the Northside Taliband (their spelling) gang.

This move to group-based enforcement was a major strategy shift as prior to that time, the department's investigative and enforcement efforts primarily focused on individual offenders and their criminal activities.

The criminal investigation of the Northside Taliband began in May 2008 and lasted more than six months. The Taliband gang was the largest, most violent and most organized of all the criminal gangs within Cincinnati. Members of the Northside Taliband regularly engaged in firearm assaults, firearms trafficking, armed and unarmed robbery, residential and business burglary, and mid-level narcotics trafficking.

Early in the investigation, it became clear that the police needed a way to overcome problems associated with its data management. It needed a way to better manage the large volume of evidence that would be acquired during a criminal investigation of this size.

All police agencies compile vast quantities of raw data and report-based information in the course of their daily business. Often, these information sources aren't linked, which means the information on offenders isn't easily searchable, complete or actionable by officers in the field.

CPD was no different. But instead of going through the cumbersome process of trying to identify a software vendor to help, the department engaged academic partners from ICS to assist in the effort.

In less than two weeks, an ICS Criminal Justice doctoral student developed a new gang database tailored specifically to collect and manage all information associated with the Taliband gang. Cincinnati police officers then documented every known official police contact with Taliband gang members over the past five years, and entered them into this new single database.

For the first time, officers could easily see which Taliband members had been arrested together, field interviewed together and were either the victims of, or suspects in, a crime together.

While the database was being developed, CPD officers, with the help of an ICS Criminal Justice master's student who was well-versed in the various social media sites, began an initial search for information posted by gang members on social media.

A fuller picture

The results were shocking. From these sites, police found evidence that included a rap song video listing Taliband gang members' names and criminal activities, and more than 1,800 posted photographs of Taliband gang members flashing their gang signs and colors, showing off their gang tattoos and posing with weapons, drugs and each other.

These images were added to the database, and with assistance from community members, each individual was identified and their relationships with other individuals in the photographs were documented in the new database.

Once the official law enforcement data and the social media data on the Taliband gang were compiled in the database, police had the ability to link gang offenders by their social associations.

A co-offending network of Taliband members became instantly apparent. This allowed the department to better identify, prioritize and target for prosecution the most criminally active Taliband offenders.

The life of a gang member is all about acquiring a strong reputation on the streets among both fellow and rival gang members. So it wasn't surprising that investigators quickly discovered the most active offenders on the street were also the most active in bragging about their criminal activity on social media.

When the investigation was completed, 71 Taliband gang members and their accomplices were arrested. A 95-count criminal indictment with gang specifications was filed against the 13 key Taliband members identified as the most criminally active within the gang.

Eliminating the Taliband gang from the Northside community resulted in an immediate 40 per cent reduction in both violent crime and overall crime in this neighbourhood. No gang member involved shooting offences occurred for more than 90 days. Community residents felt empowered and took proactive steps to secure long-term stability in their newly reclaimed neighbourhood.

Soon, modern businesses opened and new residents renovated existing buildings because they saw opportunity, not crime, in their neighbourhood.

More than five years later, the Northside neighbourhood crime level is still consistent with the initial reduction of the first year and residents have continued to work with CPD to ensure the Taliband gang doesn't reorganize and return to the Northside neighbourhood.

Social media value

The CPD learned several valuable lessons from the Northside Taliband gang investigation.

First, criminals have a strong social media presence that needs to be monitored daily by police for intelligence gathering purposes. Prior to the Taliband investigation, CPD didn't monitor social media for any criminal intelligence gathering purposes. The information gathered from social media sites during the investigation proved so valuable that the department now dedicates intelligence analysts to monitor more than 30 social media sites daily for both gang-related and other criminal activities.

Second, the raw information obtained from social media needs to be quickly analyzed in conjunction with existing law enforcement data. This includes identifying patterns or trends and immediately providing the information, in an actionable format, to street officers and detectives.

The dynamics of street gang life are constantly changing. Street gangs are no longer solely neighbourhood based. Gangs are working together more than ever before to identify collaborative sources for illegal drugs, guns and money or to identify high-value robbery targets wherever they may be located. Membership, territories and alliances or feuds with other gangs shift almost daily.

For a gang investigation to be successful, police officers need the most accurate and timely information possible on gang members and their activities.

Third, before starting to use social media postings in any investigative capacity, local prosecutors need to be consulted to ensure any evidence obtained will be admissible in future court proceedings.

Information posted on social media websites changes continuously. New photos, videos and postings are being added and others deleted. Without ongoing prosecutorial guidance as to how to best obtain, preserve and use social media information, important evidence may be lost or a suspect's rights violated.

Finally, police should further explore academic partnerships to maximize their investigative effectiveness. Without support from ICS, the Northside Taliband and numerous other gang investigations wouldn't have been possible.

ICS initially built a customized gang database and taught CPD personnel how to use it. After the offender information was collected, ICS then showed officers how to link gang members using social network analysis.

Social network analysis quickly identified Taliband members who had the most influence over other members in the gang and clearly showed the gang's hierarchy. This enabled CPD to target the entire gang for their various criminal offences, not just a few individuals.

The use of a group-based investigative approach has greatly reduced violent crime throughout the City of Cincinnati and changed CPD's policing strategies. Today, the department continues to use both the original gang database and the analytical techniques ICS developed and trained officers to use.

The use of social media in criminal investigations is an important and often overlooked investigative tool. As technology continues to evolve, criminal use of the various forms of social media will also increase.

Criminal offenders will continue to use social media to both facilitate and brag about their criminal activities. Police agencies need to constantly update their intelligence gathering efforts from social media sites or risk being left behind by the criminal offenders who use them daily.

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