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COLUMN

Fighting fire with fire: Cops, gangs waging electronic warfare for social media 'turf'

Local woman's son was murdered after he was threatened online

Thursday, December 26, 2013 - 8:33 am

Demarcus Adams was still dying in his mother’s arms March 14 when his phone flashed the news that “Scooby” had been shot.

At that point, Denise Trigg figures, the only people who could have known about her 23-year-old son’s murder were the people who killed him – presumably the same people who only days before had been threatening his life on the Internet.

“On his Facebook page they were posting pictures of bullets on plates, saying ‘RIP, Scooby’ and letting me know that they had my address and were going to blow my stomach out. After he was shot, it was ‘Scooby Do, where are you?’ ” said Trigg, who knows only too well the role “social media” are playing in the violent crime afflicting Fort Wayne and too many other American cities.

The good news is that police know it, too – and are increasingly using the thugs’ own high-tech tools against them.

“We mine social media for intelligence constantly. We need to stay one step ahead,” said Police Chief Rusty York, who said members of the department’s gang unit and other local, state and federal officers regularly monitor Facebook and other sites not only for information that might not only help solve crimes but stop violence before it starts.

That’s important, York said, because the Internet allows trouble-makers to communicate instantaneously. He recalled how a local emergency room filled with a "flash mob" of apparent gang members after a shooting – a sure sign that, just as in Trigg’s case, crime news travels much faster than it used to.

York wouldn’t discuss the methods his officers use to monitor social media sites – it’s likely they have established false identities to gain trust and access – but the potential benefits are obvious: If the police are alerted to a potential confrontation, they can show up in advance and, just maybe, prevent the kind of violence that claimed the lives of Adams and a record-tying 43 others so far this year.

But Trigg logically wonders: Why didn’t the clear threats against her son’s life prompt some kind of intervention before it was too late?

“Before he was shot I reported it to Facebook and the police. The police still have his phone,” she said. To date, no one has been charged for Adams’ killing.

York said he had no information about that specific case, but regardless of what local police are or are not doing in regard to social media, they might want to take a cue from Chicago, where a new “gang violence reduction policy” calls on police to scour the Internet not only to gather intelligence and evidence but also to target potential perpetrators or victims.

According to NBC News, the plan replaced “roving teams (of police) that muscled neighborhoods into submission” with an approach that focused on people instead of geography. Because about 80 percent of the shootings in Chicago are gang-related (sound familiar?), the city organized a “gang audit” that is constantly updated with fresh intelligence from the Internet and other sources that spits out bulletins in almost “real time.”

With the resulting “pre-crime audit” in hand police can identify the individuals likely to commit violence or to be victimized by it – knowledge that can produce the kind of “stop and frisk” policing criticized by civil libertarians and recently discontinued in New York City despite its apparent effectiveness.

The approach has already yielded results, Chicago police say.

But even gang-bangers often have sense enough to hide their online identities, and Trigg said the message threatening her son were either anonymous or posted on phony sites. Hard, time-consuming police work may eventually breech that wall of secrecy, but Trigg knows that time is on the side of the bad guys, so she sensibly advises parents to monitor and control what their children see and do online before they become victims.

“Parents need to stand up and stop being so lax about doing their jobs,” she said. “There are girls 12 and 13 online pretending to be 18 or 19 so they can meet older men. Kids are looking (online) for what they’re not getting at home. They’re looking for somebody to be a father figure.”

Trigg would like Facebook and other sites to do a better job of policing themselves, too, but that’s an even taller order than expecting the police to be everywhere, all the time. And so she’s right: Parental vigilance is every child’s first line of defense. But what happens when Dad – and too often Mom, too – is missing in action?

That’s where the police come in, and it’s good to see them fighting the gang-bangers on their own digital turf. As Adams’ brazenly foreshadowed and still-unsolved killing illustrates, they have some catching up to do.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.