The graffiti tags were supposed to mark territory for Detroit's "Band Crew" and burnish its illicit brand.
Instead, the tags – "Band Crew," "#22 BandCrew," "YNCMH" and "PBF" – were among the clues police used on social media to link gang members to alleged attempted murders, shootings, drug deals, and robberies.
Just this week, this helped secure the arrest of eight members of Band Crew, in addition to members of other gangs arrested in the past year.
A simple search of the tags on Facebook turns up photos of a bag of cash. A pistol-wielding young men surfaces on Instagram, flashing what looks like gang signs with his free hand. And a shaky cell-phone video on YouTube shows what appears to be Band Crew members chasing someone through Detroit street traffic.
The draw of social glory for criminals is paying off handsomely for police departments across the country, many of which are tapping social networks to monitor the activity of suspects and their friends. Mining Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter is helping 4 out of 5 US police departments solve crimes, according to a 2014 survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
"I get asked all the time, 'Why do gangs do that?'," meaning post so much on social media, said Lyle Dungy, crime specialist in Detroit, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. Mr. Dungy is the intelligence director for the Detroit Crime Commission, which helps police in the city fight crime.
"And I answer: because they feel like no one is watching," he said.
But they are. Of the 600 law enforcement agencies surveyed across the country, 95 percent reported using social media to create undercover identities to monitor suspects’ accounts, to post surveillance videos, to gather clues from the public, and to scan for suspicious activity and profiles. 79 percent reported that social media has helped them solve crimes.
"I was able to identify a drug dealer known only by his street name and physical description by finding him on another dealer’s page. He was showing off his bike and you could see the plate. Got the registration and ID’d him," reported an unidentified officer in a 2014 report by Lexis Nexis on social media use in law enforcement.
Dungy said that in Detroit, it’s the younger gangs – middle and high school age – that have embraced social media, which is a boon for police, since those also tend to be the most violent gangs.
"They seem to have embraced social media as ways to brag about their activities, threaten rivals, and impress their peers," explained Dungy. "It’s good for us."
Social media content can be used as evidence in court, said Dungy. And even evidence hidden behind private accounts, visible only to hand-picked followers, is accessible to police through fake profiles that criminals accept as friends or followers, or through search warrants.
Search warrants presented to companies like Facebook and Twitter can reveal information including e-mail addresses and account holders' real names, said Dungy. In some cases, even IP addresses can help identify a person’s address.
None of this suppresses the gang members' apparently insatiable desire to share.
"It is amazing that people still 'brag' about their actions on social media sites. Yeah, even their criminal actions," an unidentified police officer told Lexis Nexis … back in 2012.