New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly, a former Marine, plans to use social media to give the city's emerging street gangs a buzz cut with an aggressive new anti-gang initiative called Operation Crew Cut.
Kelly will announce the strategy today at the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) annual conference in San Diego.
New York's loosely affiliated gangs, or "street crews," "[are] responsible for much of the violence in and around public housing," Kelly said. "Under a program we've named operation Crew Cut, the department intends to double the size of its Gang Division from approximately 150 detectives to 300."
While other cities with entrenched gangs, like Los Angeles and Chicago, have identified as many as 100,000 gang members who belong to powerful national groups, New York's experience has so far run counter to that trend, and Kelly's plan aims to cut the emerging gangs down at their roots -- turning crew members' rising use of social media against them.
Crew Cut is, Kelly said, an initiative that will target "[not] large, established gangs such as the Bloods and Crips, but [the] looser associations of younger men who identify themselves by the block they live on, or on which side of a housing development they reside. Their loyalty is to their friends living in a relatively small area and their rivalries are based not on narcotics trafficking or some other entrepreneurial interest, but simply on local turf."
Kelly's plan comes against a backdrop of what he says is a small reduction in shootings, a slightly larger reduction in shooting victims, and an 18 percent reduction in murders in New York.
"We're hoping that by focusing more resources in a coordinated thoughtful way on these crews that we'll reduce violent crime in New York City even further," Kelly said. "That's because crews are responsible for no less than 30 percent of shootings in New York City."
Crew Cut is also launching, however, at a time when police agencies nationwide are shrinking. The IACP's own estimate, Kelly noted, indicated that between 10,000 and 15,000 positions have been lost.
Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Foundation Forum, said law enforcement professionals would be monitoring Kelly's effort to get ahead of an emerging problem.
"One of the most interesting stories in policing is why New York has not experienced gang problems to the extent that other cities like Chicago and L.A. have," Wexler said. "Kelly's recognition of this emerging issue of gang activity in New York and his comprehensive approach using social media will be watched closely."
Kelly tied his anti-gang initiative to the rise in social media usage and the overall impact of technology on the police mission, a topic under discussion this week in San Diego at workshops attended by many of the nation's police chiefs from jurisdictions as large as New York, as small as Hayward, Calif., and as poor as New Haven, Conn.
"Social media is [a] new ingredient, often used to add fuel to the fire. For example, one gang member will post a photograph of himself in front of a rival's apartment building or post surveillance photographs of rivals who they threatened to kill next," Kelly said. "Members also used social media to intimidate informants. They would post copies on Facebook of orders of protection that identified complainants."
In Brooklyn's East New York neighborhood, Kelly said, his detectives used social media to track members of warring gangs called "the Very Crispy Gangsters" and the "Rockstarz" until they amassed enough evidence to arrest 49 gang members two weeks ago.
"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," Kelly said
However, Kelly acknowledges, "Despite the successes in this takedown and others, the department did not have any coordinated, consistent approach to street crews."
Operation Crew Cut is meant to correct that, and the Gang Unit's members will be supported by NYPD lawyers assigned to gang divisions in New York's five boroughs, as well as by uniformed and plainclothes officers.
"Our Juvenile Justice Division will be the clearinghouse to support social media-driven investigations," Kelly said. "In addition to tracking the admissions of criminal conduct and plans of future crimes by crew members on Facebook, YouTube and elsewhere, the division will be responsible for maintaining a dictionary of sorts with [the] continually updated lexicon employed by crews as a kind of code."