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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.

Even With A Governor’s Pardon, Jesus Aguirre, Jr. Is Still a Gang Member According to Orange County

Even With A Governor’s Pardon, Jesus Aguirre, Jr. Is Still a Gang Member According to Orange County


In March of 2010, Jesus Aguirre, Jr. had just turned 16 and was hanging out with a group of friends in Buena Park, California, when a fight broke out amongst nearly 20 boys. One of the boys fired a shotgun full of birdshot at another teen, who sustained “superficial” injuries, according to the Buena Park Police Department report. The victim and witnesses said specifically it was not Jesus who fired the shot, but nonetheless he was arrested, charged as an adult by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office for gang-related criminal assault with a dangerous weapon, tried, and sentenced to life in adult prison.

In other words, Jesus — who hadn’t even fired the gun and was just a kid — was charged and given a life sentence as if he were an adult who had committed a highly aggravated and violent crime.

In February 2014, after various appeals and petitions, an appellate judgereduced Jesus’s sentence to 17 years. This past December, California Governor Jerry Brown commuted his sentence, and Jesus was released on parole. In his letter, Brown remarked on Jesus’s rehabilitation — he has participated in programs ranging from anger management to computer programming and has strong community support — but the governor did not comment on the reasons why Jesus received such a harsh sentence: Orange County prosecutors aggressively prosecuted Jesus as an adult and sought the maximum statutory punishment.

Jesus Aguirre’s case represents the worst of the California criminal justice system: aggressive prosecution of children, based on laws that are biased against kids of color. Abraham Medina, the Executive Director of Resilience O.C., a community group that works with young people of color, told me that Jesus’s commutation “clearly acknowledges that gang enhancements and gang injunctions are often utilized to over-prosecute and over-punish youth in Orange County and across the state in such a manner not conducive to justice for victims or public safety goals.”

Frankie Guzman, Director of the California Juvenile Justice Initiative for the National Center for Youth Law, says that charging kids as adults contradicts the mandate of the juvenile court system that youth should be rehabilitated. “Many kids like Jesus are thrown to the wolves in harmful prison environments without social and family support,” Guzman says. “Against all odds and in spite of a lack of developmental opportunities, Jesus has shown that kids can be rehabilitated.”

At 12, Jesus was sent to an alternative high school and sought out protection from some low-level street gang members from his Orange County neighborhood. Over the course of the next two years, Jesus was arrested some 25 times for minor crimes like graffiti, riding a bike without a helmet, writing on the sidewalk with chalk, and joyriding. (Like many Latino youth in California, Jesus lived in a heavily policed neighborhood where cops target groups of brown teenagers as likely gang members.)

Over half of Jesus’s arrests resulted in a STEP (Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act) notice, which is like a ticket issued by a police officer for what is perceived to be gang-related activity. Usually, a signature on the document means that the recipient is admitting to being a gang member. STEP tickets were authorized under California’s 1988 STEP Act, which made all alleged gang activity — even minor crimes like graffiti — eligible for enhanced sentences in California; prosecutors use the tickets as evidence that defendants have records of being stopped by the police for alleged gang-related activity. Purportedly, kids (and adults) issued STEP tickets are told about the consequences and asked to sign an acknowledgement, but, advocates say, the reality is that most kids have no idea what the document represents and have little recourse.

STEP notices also placed Aguirre at risk for being placed in CalGANG, the California gang member database, and, by the time Jesus was arrested for the alleged shooting incident in 2010, he had already been profiled by law enforcement as a gang member because of his history of STEP notices and his race. A police report noted Aguirre’s “gang-style appearance” and that he “frequented gang hangouts,” for example, along with his various citations for specific types of graffiti.

Then Jesus was prosecuted as an adult through a process known as “direct file,” which allowed the Orange County prosecutor to move felony cases where the defendant is 14 to 17-years old from juvenile to adult court. Guzman, of the National Center for Youth Law, says that Jesus’s placement in adult court fell entirely within the prosecutor’s discretion. This past November, Californians voted to eliminate the direct file process, requiring a neutral judge to make the ultimate determination, but the vote was too late to help Jesus.

Particularly concerning in Jesus’s prosecution was the use of an undercover informant within the Orange County juvenile facility. As has become clear throughout the still-unfolding Orange County jailhouse informant scandal, Orange County police and prosecutors intentionally and repeatedly used a “snitch” network to obtain incriminating evidence against defendants, especially in gang cases. Prosecutors used this tactic against Jesus, who was detained in juvie on a parole violation while gang unit officers sought more incriminating evidence. Deputies at the juvenile detention center placed Jesus in a cell with a friend, who went by the moniker “Lil Stinky.” The two were recorded for four hours, and, while the full recording has not been released, a gang officer’s summary indicates that both boys discussed various alleged crimes they had committed, as well as the fact that both were at the park the day of the shooting, but hadn’t shot the weapon. (I reviewed the officer’s summary and notes about the recording.)

The DA somehow interpreted Jesus’s statements to amount to a “confession” and filed attempted murder felony charges against Jesus.

While the jailhouse informant scandal has not yet extended to the juvenile system, Jesus’s case suggests that the same aggressive tactics — informants, gang enhancements, and excessive sentencing — used by Orange County DA Tony Rackauckas’s office against adults are also used against young people. “The Orange County DA’s office is notorious for abusing discretion,” says Guzman, “and even for condoning illegal activities to win.”

But, even though the OC DA’s alleged informant network led a judge to toss out the death penalty for a mass shooter, the gang-policing machine continues to mark communities of color. Medina, the community advocate, said that when Jesus went to check in for parole, the Buena Park Gang Unit Officers asked him to sign a STEP notice, acknowledging that he was a gang member. He refused.

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From Gang Allegations to Deportation: How Boston is Putting its Immigrant Youth in Harm’s Way

From Gang Allegations to Deportation: How Boston is Putting its Immigrant Youth in Harm’s Way


The Trump administration uses Sanctuary Cities as punching bags in its war against immigrants. But even in the cities taking federal heat for protecting immigrant communities, a little-understood, post-9/11 institution called the “fusion center” is playing a starring — if behind the scenes — role in the Trump-Sessions deportation regime. Despite promises from liberal mayors, local police departments are quietly using fusion centers — and the local gang databases housed in them — to aid ICE in seizing and deporting some of the most marginalized young immigrants in the country.

In Boston, the problem has reached crisis proportions, striking fear into immigrant communities, especially those hailing from Central America.

Local law enforcement is “the tip of the spear” in the Trump deportation machine

On September 21, 2017, Attorney General Sessions came to Boston to speak to federal prosecutors, where — facing protests outside — he delivered a cynical, ominous speech warning his Boston area employees about the threat posed by MS-13, a Salvadoran gang. (Massachusetts is home to over 40,000 people who were born in El Salvador.)

Sessions told the group that he had a message from Donald Trump to MS-13: “We are coming for you. We will hunt you down; we will find you, and we will bring you to justice.” He congratulated Boston-area prosecutors for their 2016 federal indictment of nearly 60 people alleged to be affiliated with MS-13 and asked for more of the same. But the feds can’t do it alone, he said, noting that “street level intelligence and investigation” is key to “successfully investigating and prosecuting this group of thugs.” He called “state and local law enforcement…the tip of the spear” in the fight against MS-13, and described unaccompanied minors as possible “wolves in sheep [sic] clothing.”

While he framed MS-13 as a savagely violent group, Sessions said he’d issued directives to field prosecutors to “renew their focus” not on violent crimes but on immigration offenses, especially where the immigrants “have a gang nexus.”

Months earlier, in the chaotic first few weeks of the Trump administration, Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh gave a rousing press conference at City Hall, promising to defend the city’s immigrant community against the likes of Sessions and Trump. “Boston was here for me and my family,” the son of Irish immigrants said. “And for as long as I am mayor, I will never turn my back on those who are seeking a better life. We will continue to foster trusting relationships between law enforcement and the immigrant community. And we will not waste vital police resources on misguided federal actions.” Walsh even offered to let immigrants sleep in his office, so no one in the city need live in fear of Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE).

But Walsh’s own police department was at that moment putting immigrant youth at risk of deportation by sharing information with those very federal immigration officials, who were newly emboldened to seize undocumented young people alleged to be gang involved. Indeed, even the Boston Public Schools Police were, and continue to be, involved in what some advocates are now calling a “school to deportation pipeline.”

In order to understand how that pipeline works, Walsh and other city policymakers should take a closer look at both the Boston Police Department’s local spy center and its gang database — which, whether out of ignorance or cowardice, they have largely ignored to date. Then officials should follow the lead of other big cities, and make necessary changes to protect our youth.

Post-9/11 terror hysteria, the war on drugs, and a new immigration crisis

The Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) is a post-9/11 “fusion center,” originally formed to facilitate the sharing of counterterrorism intelligence among state, local, and federal law enforcement. The federal Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency of ICE, provided initial funding for the spy center when it opened in 2005, and has since given it hundreds of millionsof dollars in grants to support its operations. The BRIC is one of nearly 100 similar centers nationwide that facilitate the sharing of counterterrorism intelligence across different levels of government, with the goal of breaking down stovepipes and providing law enforcement with an infrastructure for “connecting the dots.”

The BRIC is located at BPD headquarters and run by the Boston Police Department. The center collects, analyzes, and shares street level surveillance information in the form of BPD incident reports; reports from Boston School Police; and other types of information, including surveillance feeds from DHS-funded cameras throughout the city, and data from ShotSpotter devices, which listen for gunshots in real time. The center also collects and analyzes field, interrogation, observation (FIO) reports, which are based on police officer surveillance of individuals and groups on the streets, at schools, and in other public places. Often these FIO reports are generated from vehicle stops or stop and frisks, but other times the people monitored have no idea the police are watching them and taking notes about what they’re doing, who they’re with, or what they’re wearing. The Boston Police Department’s gang database also lives at the fusion center, making it easy for ICE agents to access its information.

The BPD’s gang database, like those in other large cities nationwide, operates on a point system. Based on the center’s surveillance, the BPD assigns points; ten points triggers reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, according to BPD policy, enabling officers to classify someone as a gang member and put them in the database. Like other gang database systems, no actual or even alleged criminal activity is required for inclusion in the database. Oftentimes, there is none alleged. For example, if a Boston Police officer assigned to work in a public school says that someone is seen communicating with a person already in the gang database, that’s four points. If law enforcement sees a person wearing a particular color hat or shirt, that’s another four points. If the cop sees a person in a “group related photograph” on Facebook or Instagram, that’s another two points, adding up to ten total. That’s it.

Despite the very low bar for admission into the database, when the Boston Police Department decides someone is a gang member, the designation can have life shattering consequences — especially when the information makes its way into the hands of immigration officials.

The image below is taken from a Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) case file, which was submitted to a Boston federal court in deportation proceedings against a young Central American Bostonian in 2017. According to his attorney, the young person, whose name we are withholding due to his ongoing immigration court proceedings, has no criminal record; ICE seized him solely because of an allegation of gang involvement in the Boston Police Department’s BRIC gang database.

As you can see, there is no allegation of criminal activity in the “verification report details” that the Department of Homeland Security presented to the immigration judge. It merely includes a number of references to field, interrogation, observation (FIO) reports claiming the young person was seen associating with other young people who are in the gang database. It is purely guilt by association that put this young man in immigration detention. And a large portion of the points come from uncorroborated statements by a school police officer, while the others come from the Boston Police Department and the Massachusetts State Police.

According to local immigration attorneys, Sessions’ commitment to using local law enforcement’s street level surveillance, and the Boston Police Department’s cooperation with those efforts, has led to a spike in arrests of young, mostly Central American people in East Boston solely on the basis of their inclusion in the BPD’s gang database. This bears repeating. Immigration attorneys who work with youth in Eastern Massachusetts confirm that in the past year, they’ve seen an increase in ICE arrests of young Bostonians who have never been arrested or even accused of a crime, solely because they are listed in the BPD’s gang database, and often initially due to statements made by school police officers.

These seemingly targeted arrests of Central American youth raise the question of whether the gang database disproportionately features Latinos. In Chicago, a study from February 2017 showed that of the nearly 65,000 people listed in the Chicago Police Department’s gang file, 75% were Black and 21% were Latinos. In July of 2017, a Mexican national living in Chicago, who had been falsely included in the CPD’s gang database, filed a federal lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department. The man, who has lived in the United States since he was five years old, was arrested and faced deportation proceedings because of the CPD’s allegation of gang involvement. As his lawyers at the MacArthur Justice Center argued, “The Chicago Police Department has a policy and practice of falsely labeling young men — almost all of whom are Latino or Black — gang members.” Advocates say that the racial makeup of the Boston database is likely similarly out of whack with the city’s overall demographics.

Local policymakers must act to bring Boston Police policy in line with Sanctuary protections

Policymakers in other cities have taken action to protect their most marginalized residents from discriminatory policing and federal overreach, and Boston should follow their lead. In response to the Trump election, the Mayor of San Francisco cut off cooperation with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, upon which agents from DHS’ ICE agency sit. In Portland, Oregon, city leaders responded to a reporter’s inquiries about that city’s gang database, and specifically its racial makeup, by shutting down the database for good. Baltimore, meanwhile, shuttered its controversial plainclothes policing unit in 2017.

Boston’s leaders should take a close look at our own police department’s gang databasing system, and at the BPD’s policies governing information sharing with federal agencies. Among the questions local leaders should ask the police: What kind of department approval, if any, must ICE agents get before accessing the gang database? How many times have ICE agents accessed the database in recent years? What is the racial makeup of the database? Is there any evidence the gang database has led to a decrease in violence? How many people included in the database have never been arrested on suspicion of committing a violent crime? How can someone learn if they are in the database? And what, if anything, can they do to get their name removed if they think they’ve been wrongfully accused? Finally, how is information from Boston School Police officers making its way into ICE’s hands, and enabling the deportations of BPS students?

If Boston’s leaders truly want to protect the city’s most marginalized residents from Trump’s deportation force, they need to get these questions answered as soon as possible, and then act accordingly. Doing so will serve the dual purpose of helping the city engage in a long-deferred conversation about the role of gang databases in BPD policing, with an eye towards protecting young immigrants from the long arm of Trump’s ICE — as well as addressing racial disparities that impact not just immigrants but also African Americans. We know young people are more likely to be system involved if they are listed in a gang database, a problem that has long predominately impacted Black youth. Our Black and Brown youth deserve to be treated better.

Boston’s mayor and local media have of late been publicly soul-searching about the role racism plays in our city. We cannot meaningfully address anti-Black and Brown racism, or truly protect immigrants, if we don’t confront the role the Boston Police Department’s gang database plays in the lives of young people of color in our city.

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