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How Philadelphia’s Social Media-Driven Gang Policing Is Stealing Years From Young People

Philadelphia Police
Wikimedia Commons user Zuzu

How Philadelphia’s Social Media-Driven Gang Policing Is Stealing Years From Young People


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By the end of his senior year in a Philadelphia high school in June 2017, Jamal had missed out on completing his certification in the culinary arts, playing on the basketball team, attending prom, and walking across the stage at his graduation. He was barred from working a job to help his mother pay the bills. He wasn’t even allowed to leave his home — all on the order of a judge. But Jamal hadn’t been convicted of a crime. Jamal lost a year of his life because — like many testosterone-filled young men — he acted tough on his social media accounts.

Jamal, a young black man — whose name has been changed at his request due to confidentiality concerns — was swept up in Philadelphia’s Focused Deterrence program, an initiative meant to crack down on gang violence but which has instead been used to criminalize entire social networks of young black and brown people. Philadelphia police arrested him in September 2016 on a gun charge after an officer in the department’s South Gang Task Force identified Jamal as a member of a gang. How had that officer made that determination? As officer Matthew York, a member of the task force, later testified in court, it was largely based on photos and tweets that appeared on Jamal’s social media and which York believed associated him with a gang, as well as Jamal’s appearance in a friend’s music video, a video that the officer believed was “gang-related.”

Philadelphia’s Focused Deterrence program, like similar programs in cities around the country, relies on internet surveillance. Police officers mine social media for possible gang affiliations of young people, then compile that “data” and feed it into gang databases. Police officers target young people in the databases — who may be included for as little as flashing a gang sign in a Tweet to bragging about a crime in a music video on YouTube and Facebook — for on-the-ground policing. State and federal prosecutors also get their hands on the social-media “data,” using it to shore up criminal cases. Philadelphia modeled Focused Deterrence after criminologist David Kennedy’s “Ceasefire” policing model, which, as I previously reported in IThe Appeal and The Nation, focuses policing on small groups of individuals (often referred to by police departments as “gangs”) that purportedly drive community violence. The Kennedy model and its offshoot programs have been deployed by many cities, including BaltimoreBaton Rouge, and New Orleans.

But the “data” police feed into these databases, for the most part, has little bearing on reality. Indeed, in December the City of Chicago settled a lawsuit with a man who was falsely included in its sprawling gang database. Across the country, young people are swept into these databases and then targeted by police — just because they bragged about actions they had no part in or made threats against rival groups they have no intention of following up on.

Meredith Manchester, a third-year law student at Temple University Beasley School of Law, has been researching several “Focused Deterrence” cases in Philadelphia courts over the past year. In one case, Philadelphia police officers began monitoring the social media accounts of a teenager after he was involved in a lunchtime brawl at his high school that resulted in a juvenile case for “riot.” After the teenager tweeted lyrics by the Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill that referenced firearms, juvenile probation officers raided his house, and found a firearm in a bedroom — not his — where he was playing video games with a friend. The DA then slapped him with two charges for illegally possessing the gun. The DA argued that the rap lyrics showed the gun was his even though police found it in someone else’s room and there was no other evidence that he’d ever touched or held it. They then detained him on this charge for almost 8 months — he was not eligible for bail, because he was still on probation for the lunchtime brawl. A judge then quashed the case — because there was no legal basis for the charges whatsoever.

According to its founders, Focused Deterrence was not supposed to be all about punishment. As part of the “Ceasefire” model, on which Philadelphia’s Focused Deterrence program is based, young people who are identified as “possibly committing violence” should be offered social services as a way out of possible criminal acts. But in Philadelphia, that effort was never given enough resources to truly make an impact.

Even worse than never following up on social services is the fact that police and prosecutors use the database to derail the lives of young men who may have never committed a crime. Jamal, whose case Manchester examined in her research, is an example. Focused Deterrence officers first identified Jamal as a gang member based largely on his social media posts and added him to their gang database. Then, in September 2016, Philadelphia police executed a search warrant on his house for evidence that could implicate him as a suspect in a recent shooting. Prior to this arrest, Jamal had no criminal record; Manchester believes that the police may have only targeted Jamal as a suspect because of his alleged affiliation with a gang known as “HBlock,” which they established through evidence from social media.* The police did find a gun in his house, but not the gun involved in the shooting (which was of a different caliber); nonetheless, they arrested him and his sister. While interrogating Jamal at the police station, detectives told him that he should be “a man” and take responsibility for this shooting because otherwise they would charge his sister. They warned him about the amount of time his sister would have to be in jail even before she was brought to trial and that she would be sent “upstate” to prison. When Jamal wouldn’t confess to the shooting, the police released his sister anyway and charged him with illegal gun possession.

Jamal was then kept in jail for two months, as prosecutors repeatedly cited his alleged gang affiliations — based largely on photos and videos on social media — as a reason to deny bail. But the social media posts mostly showed him to be a teenage boy who wanted to look tough in the violent neighborhood he grew up in. In one rap video made by a friend of his, Jamal says he is a “shooter” and points his finger to mime that he’s shooting at a rival group of young men. In other Tweets, he makes certain hand signs associated with Hblock, and insinuates that Hblock was responsible for crimes in the neighborhood.

Eventually Jamal was placed under house arrest while the charges against him remained. He was told to deactivate his social media accounts and allowed to return to school, where he would have to return immediately home following basketball practice. But then prosecutors filed a motion to revoke his bail because two other alleged gang members were arrested in his back yard. There were no allegations that Jamal was involved in the incident (a shooting) that the two individuals were arrested for; also included in this motion was an allegation that Jamal’s basketball coach was a member of a gang. Prosecutors withdrew the motion after learning that they were wrong; his basketball coach was not in fact a member of a gang. But a little over two months later, a judge revoked Jamal’s bail at the prosecutors’ request after the car he was in was shot at on his way to school early in the morning.

Jamal then sat in jail for another three weeks before he was released and again placed under house arrest, this time under one condition — that Jamal’s family move out of South Philadelphia, something they had little resources to. Nonetheless, Jamal and his family complied with the judge’s wishes, and Jamal was forced to finish his high school classes online from his new home elsewhere in Philadelphia. After graduation, he was set to begin a job he had secured through a different gun-violence prevention program, called “Philadelphia Ceasefire” but unrelated to the Kennedy model. The Focused Deterrence program objected, however, citing social media activity by members of rival groups of the gang prosecutors believed Jamal belonged to. In October of 2017, more than a year after Jamal had been first arrested, a SWAT team showed up at his grandmother’s house, looking for him in connection to a separate shooting, one that had been committed while Jamal was confined to his home on the other side of the city.

Throughout Jamal’s ordeal with the Philadelphia criminal justice system, multiple members of the community advocated on his behalf, from the administration at his school, to the coach of the girl’s basketball team, as well as his culinary teacher.

But none of this community input mattered to the Philadelphia police or the prosecutor. At a hearing about Jamal’s alleged gang membership, his public defender questioned officer York about the numerous individuals who vouched for his good character and contributions to the community — both at school and otherwise. In response, York testified, “I don’t gather information from the community, and quite frankly, I don’t care what other people’s opinions are. We look at what they put on social media.”

Philly police’s constant policing of specific individuals in the database echoes one of the main concerns of Reuben Jones, the former director of social services of Focused Deterrence. He previously told The Appeal that promised social services never materialized and that even if an individual like Jamal follows rules set forth by prosecutors and judges, there’s still no formal way to be removed from the gang database. Even if you get off social media, attend school and take advantage of social services, Jones explains, you’ll still be a target for heightened policing, with no way to “step-down” out of the database.

Finally, in November, a judge threw out Jamal’s lone misdemeanor charge due to lack of evidence. When the prosecution again brought up social media activity and recent alleged gang incidents to try to persuade him otherwise, the judge informed the prosecution that they were “trying to take the law where it [had] never gone before.” For Jamal, Philadelphia police and prosecutors had already used the law to take away more than a year of his life. If he had never been labeled as a gang member by a police officer scanning social media, he might not have even lost a single night.

—With reporting by Meredith Manchester
  • Manchester’s suspicion stems from the fact that the prosecution never presented any credible evidence that he was personally responsible for the shooting; moreover, in another case, the DA’s office submitted documentation about the shooting in which it did not mention Jamal, only surmising that Hblock may be responsible for the shooting because of two other members’ ambiguous Facebook posts.
  • Correction: A previous version of this article stated that criminologist David Kennedy had said that in Philadelphia “the social services element had been a miserable failure.” Kennedy was not been referring to the Philadelphia program. The quote has been removed.