Philly police monitoring social media in effort to prevent retaliatory shootings

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Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw speaks at Olney Transportation Center, where a mass shooting occurred on Feb. 17, 2021. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw speaks at Olney Transportation Center, where a mass shooting occurred on Feb. 17, 2021. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

City prosecutors and police stood inside a cavernous West Philadelphia church earlier this month to announce that four men now face criminal charges for allegedly injuring nine people, including three children, in a series of retaliatory shootings in 2018 and 2019.

The charges stemmed from a lengthy grand jury process. Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw credited ballistics evidence, cell phone records, and surveillance footage. She said evidence culled from social media also proved to be “invaluable” to the investigation launched under the umbrella of the city’s Gun Violence Task Force.

Photos posted to publicly-accessible accounts allowed police to identify the men. There were also damning Instagram DMs police obtained through search warrants.

“Detectives found numerous incriminating statements in private Instagram conversations, including at times direct admissions of guilt,” said Outlaw.

In July 2018, three men surrounded a rowhouse in Overbrook around 2 a.m., pulled out guns and began firing at the property.

Neither of the two people inside were injured, but a portion of the surveillance footage from the incident made the local TV news. Dashawn Packer, one of the four defendants, saw the story, according to court documents.

“I’m leaving Philly tomorrow to bro,” he messaged a friend on Instagram before sending a link to a 6abc.com writeup. “I’m onna news 3 different shooting on camera.”

While it has been monitoring social media since 2008, the Philadelphia Police Department says it is now paying even more attention — amid a historic surge in shootings and homicides — with the hope that more actively monitoring platforms like Instagram will not just help investigators make arrests, but also save lives by stopping shootings from happening in the first place.

“By taking a more proactive monitoring approach, we hope to intervene early and avoid a tragedy playing out on the street,” said Cpl. Jasmine Reilly, a police spokesperson.

Anti-violence activists have mixed feelings about the effort, with some skeptical that police are equipped to do that monitoring.

“They definitely need a community partner — someone who really understands that generation, that community, especially around social media,” said James Aye, co-founder of YEAH Philly, a youth empowerment nonprofit.

“There’s already over-policing in our communities and now there can be a sense that there’s over-policing in our virtual worlds.”

‘It’s like zero seconds now’

For at least the last few years, police and anti-violence activists have cited social media beefs as a driver of real-world bloodshed, particularly when it comes to retaliatory shootings, suspected of sending hundreds of residents to the hospital last year, the deadliest year the city has seen in three decades. (The Philadelphia Police Department said it does not track which shootings are retaliatory and which aren’t.)

The police department would not say how many employees are now assigned to monitor social media, or how the department determines who or what groups to monitor online.

As part of the tactical program, Outlaw said the department has paired specially-trained detectives with analysts to review social media posts. Those posts can feature messages about a specific shooting, photos of individuals toting crime guns, and even music videos created to taunt and insult members of rival street groups, sometimes right after a fatal shooting.

In the sea of posts, the department hopes to find information that could be helpful to the city’s Community Crisis Intervention Program, which sends dozens of outreach workers to some of the most violent areas of the city to try to mediate disputes before they turn deadly.

The Philadelphia Anti-Violence and Anti-Drug Network (PAAN) is the program’s partner organization.

“If police are able to discern that social media banter may actually result in gunplay and if they can get that information to my people who are out on the street, then I’m certainly all for that,” said executive director George Mosee.

The tips his group gets from police usually don’t come with an origin story, however.

“We get information on people who are at risk,” said Mosee. “We really don’t ask ‘Where’d you get that information?’ and they don’t ask us.”

Using social media for violence prevention purposes has a lot of potential, in part because there’s a “treasure trove” of publicly-available information out there to review, said Joseph Giacalone, a former New York police officer who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The biggest impediment is time. Social media disputes don’t always fester long before erupting into violence, especially during the pandemic, which anti-violence activists say has increased the potential for bloodshed because more people are spending more time logged onto their accounts due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“You have to find out well in advance and you have to be able to be mobilized within a few minutes in order to get to that scene, even if it’s just flooding the area with uniforms or cars,” said Giacalone.

Dawud Bey, co-founder of Put it Down, a nascent violence interruption group, said the timeframe for some retaliatory shootings fueled by social media can be especially short. “It’s like zero seconds now,” he said.

Bey said some of that can be attributed to the speed of technology and how ingrained social media is in people’s lives. Insults can be hurled in an instant and fired back just as fast, creating the potential for a dispute to turn deadly in no time at all.

Mosee said it’s challenging for PAAN to respond on the fly because outreach workers don’t always have information telling them such a response is needed. For example, people rarely say on social media that they’re heading out to shoot someone, he said.

It just happens.

“You don’t know how much [a post] gets under someone else’s skin,” said Mosee.

When outreach workers do find out a shooting is imminent, they do their best to reach potential victims first — to make sure they’re in a safe place, said Mosee. Then they try to track down the would-be shooter or shooters to try to resolve the conflict.

Another part of the equation, according to Bey, is psychological. Many of the young men he works with use social media to make a name for themselves, to show as many people as they can that they have value. And often, the currency is street credibility, even when publicly posting could leave them vulnerable to arrests for a violent crime.

“It used to be about ‘cops and robbers.’ And ‘cops and robbers’ means do something and don’t get caught,” said Bey. “These guys commit a crime, go straight on social media, and say, ‘Hey man, that’s my work right there. I killed those two, three people over there. Wassup? I ain’t hiding.’”

Those kinds of admissions can quickly trigger a retaliatory shooting, said Bey.

Mixed feelings from anti-violence activists

“The majority of these beefs be about nonsense,” said Ameer Brown. The 23-year-old member of South Philly Junior Stakeholders, a nonprofit dedicated to providing participants with a safe space to work on social issues, said he sees similar messages all the time, no matter what social media platform he’s scrolling through.

The posts are also a constant reminder of what happened to his younger brother, Asir Brown who was fatally shot in South Philadelphia in 2016, shortly after arriving at a Fourth of July cookout with a friend.

He was 16.

“Still to this day, it haunts me,” said Ameer. “I never thought I would lose a sibling to gun violence.”

Police found Asir around noon in the back of a house in Grays Ferry, suffering from a gunshot wound to his back. He died the next morning at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Nearly five years later, Asir’s murder remains unsolved, as many homicides in Philadelphia do. Through the first two months of this year, the clearance rate for fatal shootings was 26%, according to police. The clearance rate has fallen by about half since last year.

Ameer, who was at work when he got the news, said his brother was an innocent bystander who got caught in the crossfire, and that the gunfire that killed him was the result of a dispute that started on social media.

He doesn’t recall what the feud was about. Something insignificant, he said.

Brown said he supports the police department bolstering its efforts to monitor social media posts. The disregard for human life and for consequences from law enforcement make him shake his head.

“If that’s gonna make their job easier, then keep doing what you do,” said Brown.

As of Tuesday, at least 102 people had been murdered in Philadelphia so far this year, a 29% increase over the same time in 2020. More than 380 people have been shot. There were roughly 260 shooting victims at the same time last year.

Kendra Van de Water, executive director of YEAH Philly, thinks those numbers are unacceptable. And overall, she supports the concept of monitoring social media if it can save lives.

But she doesn’t think police are equipped to lead such an effort. She used a recent tweet about a Philadelphia police officer’s podcast to help explain.

“He was saying when people say ‘pull up’ on Instagram, it’s a precursor to a shooting. Meanwhile, ‘pull up’ can mean come over, come through, come by. It can mean all types of different things,” said Van de Water.

“To have these wide-sweeping blanket assumptions and statements, it’s inappropriate and it also shows that there’s a really big disconnect between the police and community and just language in general.”

The result, she fears, is that the strained relationships between police and many residents in the neighborhoods hit hardest by gun violence will be more damaged by further distrust.

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