Police eye gangs strutting online
Kristopher "Kasper" Flowers worked on a tattoo in Los Angeles. The main 18th Street gang website has a link to his site, Kaspers World. Flowers says he's sworn off violence. (AP Photo)
LOS ANGELES -- Some of the country's most notorious street gangs have gotten Web-savvy, showcasing illegal exploits, making threats, and honoring killed and jailed members on digital turf.
Crips, Bloods, MS-13, 18th Street, and others have staked claims on various corners of cyberspace. ``Web bangers" are posting potentially incriminating photos of members holding guns, messages taunting other gangs, and boasts of illegal exploits on personal websites and social networking sites.
``I'm just being real and I ain't got nothing to hide," said Kristopher ``Kasper" Flowers, 30, a professed member of the 18th Street gang with facial tattoos of ``18" and ``666." The main 18th Street gang website has a link to his site, Kaspers World.
Gangs once roamed only the streets of big cities but now can be found in 2,500 US communities, according to the FBI. Police departments suddenly faced with the unwelcome arrivals are looking for help anywhere they can get it, including the gangs' own easy-to-find websites.
George W. Knox, director of the National Gang Crime Research Center, said he has trained hundreds of police officials in how to cull intelligence on gang membership, rivalries, territory, and lingo from these websites.
``In order to understand any subculture, be it Al Qaeda, witches, devil worshippers, or gangs, you have to be able to know their own language. "
Knox also said it's important for police to learn how to read between the lines on gang websites and blogs. Just as time on the streets has given gang investigators the ability to read the hieroglyphics of wall graffiti, time on the Web helps them understand arcane Web clues. Gang identifiers, such as tattoos, graffiti tags, colors, and clothing often are embedded in each site.
The tendency for gang members to brag about their exploits on websites such as Myspace.com has in some cases helped investigators make arrests.
Chicago police recently arrested a teenager accused of spraying his gang nickname on a church by tracing the moniker to his Myspace.com account. His online profile included his address, photo, and real name.
A Northern California judge ruled recently that two teens charged with beating a boy into a coma could be tried as adults after prosecutors showed photographs of the two from Myspace.com. In the images, they flashed the hand signs of a local gang.
Myspace.com representatives could not be reached for comment.
Deputy Tom Ferguson of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's gang investigation unit has identified a number of graffiti writers who posted photos of themselves in front of their work to a public website .
``Maybe they think we don't look at it," Ferguson said. ``But we're out there gleaning information on them."
Flowers, a Hollywood tattoo artist who says he has sworn off violence, said he gets e-mails from wannabe gang members from far reaches of the Web but usually does not respond.
``If I do, I tell them to get a life and do your own thing and don't try to be part of something else," he said.