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POV

The Mean Tweets of New York

Tracking gang conflicts on social media is controversial, but it can help community members and law enforcement get ahead of shootings—without arrest and incarceration.

At a news conference in 2013, NYPD officials announce the arrests of several gang members. Monitoring the social media of reputed gang members has drawn criticism from civil liberties advocates. (AP)

In obscure inlets of social media, young urban men and women provoke each other in virtual vendettas that can turn deadly IRL. “Cyberbanging,” the unfortunate moniker for this phenomenon, often starts with harmless, slangy boasts on social media. Here’s one Twitter user’s call to New York City’s 100 Cloccs crew.

But these boasts sometimes escalate to threats, shootings, and reprisals.

Unsurprisingly, the New York City Police Department is surveilling crew members like these online. This tactic has distressed some city residents and watchdogs, especially when investigators pose as attractive young women in order to connect with the private accounts of suspected gang members (fodder, one supposes, for future gender-studies dissertations). But what might surprise you is that community members themselves have also begun to monitor high-risk youth online, with an eye to calming conflicts and keeping them safe.

A new report from the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City shows how community interventions in online disputes aim to stem real-world gun violence. The CCC, working with NYU's Steinhardt School, launched a pilot program called “E-Responder” that trained 26 anti-violence street workers in five sites across the city to recognize online risk signs—not just threats or pictures with guns, but also expressions of grief or emotional distress—and gave them tools to help.

Far from saddling young crew members with more criminal justice contact, these are tools to resolve fights, build empathy, and encourage leadership among the highest risk street populations.

Does it work? There’s no good way to tell how many online conflicts would have turned to shootings, but the report is sanguine about E-Responder’s results: The training improved street workers’ ability to identify risky social media behavior. And when they identified it, 97 percent of their interactions with youth led to positive outcomes, like de-escalating conflict and helping youth feel better able to change their own behavior. "Extensive psychological research has shown that the evidence-based strategies employed by E-Responder are correlated with reduced violence and positive behavior change," Richard Aborn, president of the CCC, says by email.

Let’s be clear: None of this proves a direct impact on violence. But it’s deeply important to intervene with the people most likely to hurt someone or get hurt themselves. “[W]e have shown that we can reach youth before online arguments move from the internet to the street,” Aborn states in the report. “The results of this study demonstrate that E-Responder should be implemented on a larger scale.” Indeed it will be: 18 more sites in the city have agreed to try it.

At very least, this is encouraging news. My work at the National Network for Safe Communities, a public safety-focused organization at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is all about getting communities together with police to stop the flow of shootings in U.S. cities. Our method descends from our director David Kennedy’s pioneering work on Operation Ceasefire, a police-community strategy that drastically reduced Bostons youth violence in the 1990s. It starts with the knowledge that even in the most deadly neighborhoods, barely anyone is really shooting each other: As much as 75 percent of gun violence in the cities we work with involves less than one percent of the population, whether as victim or perpetrator. If you can communicate convincingly with those few, you can broker peace.

Within this environment, virtual conflict isn’t exactly new. Rival gangs have long dogged each other with scrawled graffiti on city walls. In the 1990s, crews released hip-hop tapes and videos taunting each other—the spiritual ancestors of today’s lo-fi YouTube productions, and just as capable of spurring shootings. Digital drama arose just downstream from the analog animus that drove gang violence for decades; gang communications change, but the violence dynamics stay the same.

In New York City, at least 240 shootings and 24 murders last year began online. And shooting begets shooting: A recent study showed that a single incident can set off others, ultimately overflowing in a “cascade” of violence that may leave dozens hurt or killed. Add to this that New York City prosecutors have indicted over 700 young people using evidence from their social media accounts and you get a comprehensive picture of the harm done. We need solutions that don’t just respond to violence but get ahead of it.

The ideas from this new report are one way to do that. Communities have also long worked in partnership with police to keep their neighborhoods safe. This can look like direct communication with the people at highest risk. If someone’s threatening violence on social media, police and community leaders can get together on “custom notifications,” a process my office developed to warn high-risk people about the consequences of gun violence and offer them community services to change their lives. In cases where kids are acting out grief online, the strategy could look like a victim response team, with police and community members specially trained to address trauma or connect survivors with counselors who can.

Cops like Kevin O’Connor, assistant commissioner of the NYPD’s juvenile justice division, are already putting this into practice. For years now, he’s been working with “interruptors” at Crown Heights Save our Streets and other youth outreach organizations to build relationships with at-risk high school kids, warn them about the legal risks they face when they post gang affiliations and threats online, and link them with neighborhood resources. When O’Connor displays young crew members’ social posts at high school assemblies, it’s “to get the effect that the kids in the audience know: That’s me, and they know about our group,” he has said. “It’s also to show the parents that we know they’re your children. We want you to police them before we do.”

You may be asking yourself: if E-Responder can help without involving the police, why add cops to the mix? After all, much righteous horror has accompanied the revelation that the NYPD’s Operation Crew Cut monitors kids, some as young as 10 years old, whom they believe are driving inter-crew shootings. A Guardian exposé wondered whether this tactic is “the new stop-and-frisk,” and critics have seen it as just another of the department’s efforts to lock up young black men.

But the reality is that police will keep on patrolling the internet, with or without community consent. Communities can help them do it in a way that avoids sending young shooters to the pen and young victims to the morgue.

And in the end, coming together with the cops has everything to do with building police legitimacy—and, more broadly, the legitimacy of the state. One reason that kids in poor, black communities are shooting each other over disrespect on Twitter is that they don’t trust the state to protect them and treat them justly when they find themselves in danger. This distrust owes as much to the history of the black community with police as to recent high-profile incidents of police brutality. It’s legal cynicism in action.

That’s why it’s crucially important that police work with community members, like street workers: It shows they can play a fair and judicious role in the neighborhood, back the community up when the waters get stormy, and keep the highest-risk people safe from the worst kinds of harm. It won’t just help quell the mean tweets of New York. It will build trust and make the city’s most vulnerable communities stronger.

About the Author

  • Michael Friedrich
    Michael Friedrich is a senior research and policy associate at the National Network for Safe Communities, a project of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.