Police investigating two gangs called the Very Crispy Gangsters and the Rockstarz didn't need to spend all their time pounding the pavement for leads. Instead, they fired up their computers and followed the trash talk on Facebook.
"Rockstarz up 3-0," one suspect boasted -- a reference to the body count from a bloody turf war between the Brooklyn gangs that ultimately resulted in 49 arrests last month.
Authorities in New York say a new generation of gang members is increasingly using social media to boast of their exploits and issue taunts and challenges that result in violence. And police and prosecutors have responded over the past several years by closely monitoring Facebook and other sites for leads and evidence.
On Tuesday, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly announced plans to beef up the NYPD's cyber crackdown by expanding the use of aggressive online investigative tactics and doubling the size of the department's gang unit to 300 investigators.
The reinforcements will focus less on established gangs like the Bloods and Crips and more on loosely knit groups of teenagers who stake out a certain block or section of a housing project as their turf and exact vengeance on those who trespass or fail to show the proper respect.
"By capitalizing on the irresistible urge of these suspects to brag about their murderous exploits on Facebook, detectives used social media to draw a virtual map of their criminal activity over the last three years," the commissioner said in remarks prepared for delivery at a law enforcement convention in San Diego.
Examples of the public displays of digital bravado abound. In the Brooklyn case, suspects sought to intimidate informants by posting court documents containing their names, authorities said. In another throwdown, the Rockstarz posted a photo of a Very Crispy member and the comment, "He is scared. Look at him." Police say much of the potentially incriminating material they gather can be found on Facebook profiles that are public.
But as part its new, stepped-up efforts, the department will refine and expand use of a tactical instrument in the three-year Brooklyn gang investigation -- having officers adopt Internet aliases, create phony profiles and seek to "friend" suspects to gain access to nonpublic information, officials said.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the NYPD "has the right, indeed the obligation, to pursue effective avenues for investigating criminal gang activity, and that includes using Facebook and other social media." But she said such methods must be closely monitored so they don't become "a vehicle for entrapment or unauthorized surveillance."
Police and prosecutors insist they are following strict legal protocols. "When we meet with the police and we talk about investigative techniques, when they are on these social media sites, we'll give them certain directions," Ed Carroll, head of the Gang Bureau of the Brooklyn district attorney's office, said Tuesday.
"We don't want to set up any situation where anyone is being entrapped or put in a position where they're going to agree to commit a crime." Police officials from San Diego and Atlanta who attended the California gathering on Tuesday said their departments also monitor Facebook and other social media to learn what gang members are saying about shootings and other crimes.
"It's no different than interviewing a witness or knocking door to door, doing canvasses," said Carlos Campos, spokesman for the Atlanta Police Department. "Technology has just given us another angle for investigating."
In Chicago, police also built a database of the city's gang members and provide commanders with software that allows them to send officers to spots where they expect a gang to retaliate for a shooting.
A federal judge in New York has already weighed in on the privacy issue, siding with prosecutors in a gang case in the Bronx.
In that case, federal investigators infiltrated the private Facebook posts of a suspected leader of a drug crew leader by using the account of a "friend" who became an informant. Court papers says the posts included comments about cocaine deals such as, "I'm trying to see the man for like 600 grams," and photos of the suspect making gang hand gestures.
Defense attorneys tried to have the material thrown out, arguing it was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
In a decision last month, U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley wrote that defendant Melvin Colon's "legitimate expectation of privacy ended when he disseminated posts to his 'friends' because those 'friends' were free to use the information however they wanted -- including sharing it with the government."