Investigators using social media to track gang members

Posted at 7:59 PM, Apr 12, 2013
and last updated 2013-04-12 21:59:44-04

SANDY, Utah - Police, prosecutors, educators and social workers in Utah gathered this week for their annual gang conference to review the latest trends in hopes of stopping gang violence before it begins.

Det. Rick Simonelli says that even after a decade of investigating gang crime in Utah, he rarely has a dull moment.

"It's always evolving, it never stays the same," Simonelli said.

When gang officers think they have things figured out about gang activity and behavior, new trends come along. Simonelli says many of the suspects they deal with on the street are now as knowledgeable with computers as they are with cars and weapons.

"We're seeing them more nowadays using social media, a lot more educated in how to use electronics...Facebook, Myspace, the newest thing out is Instagram, everybody loves Instagram," he said.

Simonelli says he learned about Instagram the hard way; one of his sources informed him that a local gang member had snapped a picture of Simonelli while he was out to dinner with his family. That photo was put on Instagram with a derogatory remark about police.

"I had no idea about it until it was provided to me," he said. "As I explain to cops, teachers, everybody, you always have to be watching your surroundings. You never know, I didn't see that individual take a picture of me. Doesn't take long for anybody to take a quick picture on a phone nowadays."

Gang members are now using YouTube to fly their colors, recruit new members and take shots at rival gangs.

"It's blowing up quite a bit. You got people out there that'll talk about their gang, talking about some of their criminal activity, flashing big money or guns," Simonelli said.

But police are using new technology and social media, too. Simonelli says agents sometimes use those to arrest and indict gang members, plus social media helps spread the word to the public, like the FOX 13 News Utah's Most Wanted segments.

"We'll have a lot of individuals say they saw themselves on the news or their friends will send them a text, 'Hey, just saw you on the news, you better hide or take care of your stuff,'" he said.