Friday, March 10, 2006

The Power of the Network: For Good or Evil

Hell's AngelsCrime: 'Netbangers,' Beware
Street gangs are going online to compare notes and pick fights. But the cops are right behind them.
By Daren Briscoe

March 13, 2006 issue - With a seasoned cop's knowing eye, Lake Worth, Fla., police agent Brian Hermanson cruised recently through some known gang hangouts. He was soon onto potential trouble: someone rolling through the neighborhood in a blue Lincoln and flashing gang signs. There was no crime—yet—but Hermanson knew to keep an eye out for the car. Not a bad bit of police work, especially for a guy who hadn't even left his desk. Hermanson gleaned the tip from a few minutes spent browsing a local gang member's personal Web page. The 15-year veteran cop used to spend most of his days on the streets, drawing a bead on gang activity by reading graffiti and chatting up members. But that changed in 2004, when his investigation into a deadly drive-by shooting stalled. Some teenagers asked if he'd checked the Internet for clues. Hermanson took their advice, and found himself transported into the little-known realm of "Netbanging." Across the nation, street gangs have taken their neighborhood feuds, colors and rituals online. Hermanson eventually found chat-room conversations that helped secure two convictions in the drive-by case. Ever since, he's spent 15 to 20 hours a week scanning Web sites for clues about local gang activity. "For a guy that's working gang shootings, this is great stuff," Hermanson tells NEWSWEEK.

Like everyone else, street gangs are staking out a place on the Web. Det. Juan Colon, who trains gang investigators for the New Jersey State Police, began researching online gang activity in 2000. "But in the last three years," he says, "there's just been an explosion of this stuff." Some of the more established cliques, like L.A.'s Mid City and Clanton gangs, have professional-quality sites. Click onto Clanton's Web site and you'll find a detailed gang history, complete with photographs dating to the 1970s. "It's basically a way for everybody in the neighborhood to keep in contact," says the gang's Webmaster, who agreed to be identified only by his street name, Stalker. "We talk about old-school traditions." Mid City's Web site is run by a 30-year-old retired member who goes by Cricket. The site, he says, is nothing more than a place to showcase the "Mid City Kingdom Lifestyle"—which, if the photos there are any indication, includes a lot of macho posing, boozy hugging and throwing of the gang's hand signs. (After being contacted by news-week, Cricket, who spent some time in California's juvenile-justice system and has since earned a bachelor's degree in Web design, scrubbed the site and added legal disclaimers.) Stalker says his Web site is "not for recruiting." But intended or not, the sites have expanded gangs' reach far beyond poor, urban street corners. Now anyone with a computer can live—or pretend to live—the thug life.

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