WASHINGTON – In the time it takes David Caruso’s character to remove his sunglasses on an episode of CBS’s “CSI: Miami,” a computer database has found a gang member just by knowing his nickname.
“Obviously CSI is a little farfetched, but the premise is very similar,” said Eric Zidenberg, director of public safety programs for Fairfax, Va.,-based SRA International, the developers of GangNet.
GangNet, an Internet-based networking and gang database will soon be pinpointing gang thugs in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia by allowing information on gang members to be shared across counties or even states. Networking is a powerful new weapon in the state’s effort to dismantle tightly knit street gangs.
Maryland contains an estimated 3,600 gang members, including 1,000 in his county alone, Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy told the Maryland House Judiciary Committee on March 6.
Bloods, Crips, MS-13, Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, the Black Guerrilla Family, Surenos, Vatos Locos, Street Thug Criminals and Latin Kings all operate throughout the state as do more localized groups, according to the University of Maryland gang information and prevention Web site.
“A lot of people think we don’t have gangs in Western Maryland or on the Eastern Shore, but we do,” said Queen Anne’s County State’s Attorney Frank Kratovil.
With GangNet, gang enforcement officers can form a tight communication network. For example they will be able to find the specialties of fellow agents, and then contact them to help with an investigation, Zidenberg said. “Every user of the system is also a resource.”
A lot of the time, crimes are solved with the help of a witness who only heard a nickname or saw a tattoo. Identifiers like scars or aliases are entered in the database and a connection could be made by running a query for these identifiers, Zidenberg said.
“95 percent of the time when you talk about gangs, you are talking about narcotics,” said Lt. Donald Ladd of the Durham County Sheriff’s Gang Unit. Sure enough, in August 2006, gang investigation units in North Carolina used information obtained from GangNet to crack a major narcotics distribution ring operated by the Surenos, a Hispanic street gang.
GangNet has the ability to perform link-diagram analysis, showing relationships among gang members and their hierarchy. The result looks a lot like a family tree, Ladd said.
Using the database, gang investigators found a connection between a known gang member from the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., region, and another halfway across the state in Wilmington, N.C. Investigators were also able to see everyone associated with these two, said Ladd adding, “this link is something that would have likely gone unnoticed.”
“GangNet is consistent with a new strategy to recognize gangs are cross-jurisdictional,” said Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein. “It allows officers anywhere in the state to know the role of the people in the database.”
The Washington-Baltimore High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program received federal grant money in December 2006 to administer GangNet throughout in the three jurisdictions. Initial costs are around $350,000 for servers and licensing fees and maintenance will cost $60,000 annually, said coordinator Rick Weaver.
GangNet was first used in California 10 years ago, Zidenberg said. Once Maryland, D.C. and Virginia are included, GangNET will be at work in 14 states.
GangNet has evolved since its inception and now includes pattern analysis to monitor activity and movement of specific gangs throughout the state or county, Zidenberg said.
It also has integrated facial recognition software to help with identification of criminals or bodies. This works by graphically stripping away the skin and then examining 250 focal points or measurements on the face. These points could be the distance between nostrils or from eye to cheekbone, Zidenberg said.
With state and federal prosecutors showing an increased desire to target street gangs with racketeering statutes originally designed for bringing down the Mafia, information-sharing tools are welcome.
“It’s simple — the more information, the easier it is to prosecute,” said Attorney General Douglas Gansler.
It is up to the agencies themselves to put their gang information into the database, said gang intelligence officer Mitch McKinney of Chapel Hill, N.C.
“It’s sort of the Kevin Bacon phenomena,” said University of Chicago gang researcher Andrew Papachristos, “it will tend to snowball.”
“Success is all dependent of the data quality and the agencies involved,” said University of Maryland Criminology Professor David Kirk.
Participating agencies have to establish a set of criteria as to what constitutes a gang member, and then include information in the database, Weaver said.
“It does raise some interesting policy questions,” Popachristos said. “Once you are in the system, do you ever really get out? Will people be trapped in a revolving door system?”
“What is a gang is a relevant issue,” said Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glen Ivey, “but once you define it, you need to get to the bigger issue of what happens when you get these guys off the street.”
“I think we are headed in the wrong and the right direction,” said Kimberley Armstrong of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition. It is a good thing to keep track of gang numbers and activity, she said, but “just because you are in a gang database, doesn’t mean that you’re in a gang.”
But Weaver countered: “In general there is a reasonable balance and the right people will be in this system.”