Accessing relevant, up-to-date intelligence about gang members and their criminal activities is a common problem for partnering jurisdictions that want this information. One place that lacked unified and sharable data was Houston, which has at least 10,000 documented gang members in the city limits and the suburbs.
In a project to improve information sharing between public safety agencies, a task force of state, local and federal partners devised StopHoustonGangs.org - a public-facing site to educate Houston area residents and a back-end portal for law enforcement to share information. Launched in September 2010, the website is a one-stop destination for gang-related information. Officials envision the site will become an outlet where law enforcement can educate the community about gangs and residents can submit anonymous tips about gang activity.
"We were trying to figure out a vehicle in which we could inform the public about gang crimes and heighten awareness of gang activities occurring within the city and surrounding areas," said Lt. Craig Williams of the Houston Police Department.
The website is a project of the Multi-Agency Gang Task Force, an FBI-led partnership that encompasses 14 other agencies, including: the Houston Police Department; Texas Department of Criminal Justice; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The task force seeks to identify members and leaders of violent street gangs and target them for prosecution.
Enlisting the Community
But some people believe that targeting and tracking gang members and crime isn't solely the responsibility of public safety agencies. Residents usually have a better sense of when abnormal activity is occurring in their neighborhoods than police do, so StopHoustonGangs.org is more than just an informational website. It's a community policing initiative.
The website provides information residents should look for - like gang signs, hand symbols, clothing, colors, tattoos and graffiti - and a Web-based form for them to anonymously send gang-related tips to the task force.
"The law enforcement component that we were really excited about was creating a mechanism in which we can solicit information on gang activity from the public," Williams said. "This vehicle allows us to get it from anyone who knows how to turn a computer on."
Citizens who have information about criminal gang activity happening anywhere in the region can submit their clues and tips. "And we will assign someone to investigate it," Williams said.
The tip form doesn't capture the reporters' IP address or require them to provide contact information. However, they can include their name, phone number or e-mail address if they're OK with a law enforcement officer contacting them to follow up. Williams said after just more than a month of the site being live, about half of the tips submitted included the reporter's contact information.
As of late October, the website received 30,000 hits, and community members submitted more than 80 tips through it, according to Williams. Even more impressive: Those tips led to 10 arrests.
Also notable about this community policing initiative is that the public is watching how the Houston Police Department and other partner agencies are responding to the tips. Williams said one of the first tips received via the website was that gang activity was occurring on Friday nights in a certain location. "We went out on Saturday night and there was no activity," he said. "And the next week he e-mailed back and said, 'I told you guys to come on a Friday night. You guys came on a Saturday night; there's nothing happening on Saturday nights.'"
The police officers went to the location the following Friday night and made multiple arrests.
"The people submitting the information probably live in the area or are close to the activity, so they know what's going on," Williams said. "They know if we're doing anything." He said this is why the task force responds to all tips that warrant further investigation.
Besides sharing gang-related data with law enforcement officials, the website also facilitates information sharing between the Multi-Agency Gang Task Force members. A login function allows them to securely access the back-end portion and view facts related to gang investigations. Brian Ritchie, the FBI supervisory special agent in charge of the task force, said before the website, information was exchanged through e-mails and in-person meetings. Although that communication hasn't stopped, the site has become a central digital archive.
"In this day and age, the Internet is a part of everyone's daily life," Ritchie said, "and this just makes it a lot quicker and more effective to make sure everyone involved in these types of investigations has the information, so that we can try to do our job more effectively."
The agencies alternate monitoring the site in one-month increments, Williams said, so everyone gets to see the submitted tips, however, task force - supervisors can always view them and agencies can follow up if a submitted tip aligns with their investigation.
The 15 agencies represented in the task force span all levels of government, as well as different law enforcement sectors such as homeland security, drug enforcement, and immigration and customs enforcement. "We all need each other to fight the problem. We really do; none of us can do it by ourselves," Williams said. "Obviously the [Houston Police Department] has more 'boots on the ground' than any of the other agencies. So a lot of the agencies will look to us for manpower while we look to them for the technological issues where we can do wiretaps on different organizations or surveillance."
The idea for StopHoustonGangs.org originated during the task force's meetings, when members were searching for a way to provide the public with gang-related information. Williams said initially the agencies were going to start a 1-800 number, but realized it wouldn't be feasible due to the cost and manpower required.
"There was not one thing that really led to the start of the website," Ritchie said. "It was over many meetings and several months that we came up with the idea to solicit information from the public to try to make Houston a safer place."
The website's educational component seeks to build community awareness by showing residents what to look for, and contains material on who's vulnerable to being in a gang and how to get out of one.
The site wasn't modeled after other projects. Williams said the task force took into consideration comments from the members, police personnel and civilians. An FBI contractor with experience building law enforcement-related websites designed StopHoustonGangs.org. And it may be setting the standard for similar sites. As of press time, the webmaster had received eight invitations from other public safety agencies to build similar projects for them, according to Williams.
"We feel very fortunate that it's caught on," Ritchie said. "We've had a lot of success since the website's been up, and we think other cities will as well."