Gang members increasingly are using the internet to discuss crimes in private chat rooms and offer gangbanger wannabes a chance to enlist by posting membership applications online. And law enforcement officials nationwide are taking notice.
In the last few years, the number of gang-related web sites has grown to tens of thousands, with about 20 percent to 30 percent run by actual gang members, said Detective Chuck Zeglin of the Los Angeles Police Department’s career criminal apprehension section.
“We recently found one site for a Crip gang back East that was trying to recruit,” Zeglin said. “One site for the P-town Gang in Kentucky has a thing on their site that you click on if you want to be a gang member. There’s a resume you have to fill out. But mostly we just find threats.”
A growing number of police departments monitor the web sites, but the information they have found has not led to significant criminal charges. The potential threat of children communicating with gang members through the web is a primary motivation for authorities to monitor the sites, officials say.
Victor Bond, founder of the Texas Gang Investigators Association and a detective in the gang unit of the Harris County Sheriff’s Department, said the web sites promote violence.
“Young people can access them, see their colors, and be motivated to join,” he said.
But experts say the internet has failed thus far to help gangs boost enrollment figures or extend their reach. The National Youth Gang Center estimates there are 720,000 gang members in the country.
Leifel Jackson founded a gang in Little Rock, Ark., and just spent eight years in prison for drug trafficking. He is convinced the sites help gangs get their message out.
“Youth can go on [the web] and see how that gang is talking about how good it is, about how some guy is a Crip for life, and they are going to want to join,” said Jackson, who now works to keep kids out of gangs. “These gangs are showing off.”
Police in Miami and Long Beach, Calif., are starting programs in which officers routinely check web sites to gather intelligence information about meeting places, times, and upcoming events.
Most of the sites offer a chat room or message board where members glorify their gang or challenge rivals. One Crip site in the Midwest features a graphic in which blood drips down the screen. Others show a range of gang tattoos.
Authorities in Chicago are among those working with federal and local authorities to access chat rooms where gang members are talking.
“It’s not like telephone lines that we can tap if we have something on them. The internet is a whole other thing,” said Eugene Williams, the Chicago Police Department’s commander of narcotic and gang investigations.
Police have shown little hesitation about using information they glean from chat rooms. And the tactic has yet to produce a court challenge or regulations like those that govern telephone taps.
“We do have access to some secure sites,” Williams said. “Some, anyone can get into. So right now, we just want to see which ones we can gain access to and see what’s really in there.”
Albert Hunter, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University in Chicago, said the gang sites may be protected under the constitutional right to freedom of speech. But that could be a problem if the sites are promoting criminal activity.
“My real concern is if these sites are being used for criminal purposes, if they are planning conspiracies,” Hunter said. “Otherwise, the internet is a freedom of assembly.”
Jose Lopez, a gang consultant and retired Latino studies professor at California State University at Long Beach, said it’s sad that gang members are using their computer skills to promote their gang instead of getting jobs.
“My problem is they are gaining computer skills that could empower them and make a life for themselves,” Lopez said. “Instead, they are using it to flash their signs.” n
National Youth Gang Center, Institute for Intergovernmental Research, P.O. Box 12729, Tallahassee, FL 32317; phone (850) 385-0600, fax (850) 386-5356, eMail firstname.lastname@example.org, web http://www.iir.com/nygc
National Gang Investigation Associations, http://www.gligic.org/gang_investigation.htm