Tipsters alert HPD with photos, video, email on suspicious activities
The anonymous tip bounced into a police supervisor's BlackBerry just before dinner on a recent Saturday night: Gangsters wearing matching muscle shirts were peddling crack from the parking lot of a convenience store where they would duck inside to hide from the law.
A few days later, more than a dozen undercover officers fanned out in the notoriously tough slice of northwest Houston.
The store in question was across the street from an apartment complex where Houston police officer Timothy Abernethy was shot to death in 2008.
The stealthy tip came as the result of the website stophoustongangs.org, which allows the public to privately share tips on crimes by gangs, from drug sales and graffiti to assaults and initiations.
The site drew nearly 60,000 visits in its first seven months, according to Houston police, and caught the attention of other cities that are considering copying it. Nearly 300 tips were shared by the public, resulting in upward of 30 felony and misdemeanor arrests, authorities say.
Photos and videos of cars, homes and suspects have been sent to the site as apparent neighbors, classmates and ex-girlfriends turned to cyberspace for the modern equivalent of dropping a dime on someone, said Lt. Craig Williams of HPD's Gang Division.
"A lot of people have information we are not privy to," Williams said. "They can do it anonymously. That is a key point. A lot of times people want to tell but are afraid."
The website is not for emergencies, but tips are routed directly to a supervisor drawn from about a dozen law enforcement agencies, including HPD, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The site also offers information for the public on local gangs, including photos, tattoos and hand signs.
Some of the tips have tagged the city's most notorious gangs, others small-time rings unknown to police.
The Houston Chronicle was allowed to review a sampling of 50 tips, all redacted by authorities to avoid sharing information that might help gangsters figure out tipsters' identities.
Many clues were about graffiti marking turf on Houston's streets and parks as well as the activities of petty drug dealers and thieves.
There were also more chilling tips about a gang initiation ritual that required a girl be raped, though no arrests have been made so far, and drunken men terrorizing a neighborhood by firing guns into the air while shouting the name of their gang. It is not clear from the records whether anything came of it.
Thugs also monitor site
Some people, presumably gang members, also monitor the site, in some cases taunting police: "Ya'll ain't stopping nothing," reads one message.
Brian Ritchie, supervisor of the FBI's multi-agency gang task force in Houston, said a recent nationwide assessment found gang members commit 60 percent to 80 percent of crimes in some communities.
"Gangs are a reality in every major city and are growing in membership across the country," he said. "In the Houston area, there are more than 10,000 documented gang members belonging to more than 200 different documented gangs."
The clues submitted so far leave no doubt that people - especially those living near gang activity - want to help.
"One of the males was wearing a gray hoodie, shorts, and a ski mask," states part of a tip that later resulted in arrests. "He walked out with his hand in his jacket, pretending like he had a gun but then sat down on the bench and pulled his hand out of his jacket empty-handed."
Another tipster had a sense of urgency after a police raid. As soon as the police left, the tipster writes, the gang got together to (unsuccessfully) see who reported them so they could retaliate. "Told you guys to hit them on Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday night," the tip continues. "They have and do drugs, smoke marijuana, drink all night. Please help."
Can check results
A unique aspect of the website is that tipsters can check what happens as a result of their shared clues.
In some cases, officers have posted notes asking tipsters for more specifics, such as license plates, names or apartment numbers.
On the afternoon undercover police descended on northwest Houston in response to the crack-dealing tip, within minutes the police radio crackled with the voice of Lt. Joe Inocencio: "Looks like we have some players on the side of the store."
For $20 a pop, officers quickly scored a few rocks of crack, enough for charges that could lead to months in jail and garner more information about bigger dealers.
As later noted on the website, officers arrested four people in the area on drug charges. A 17-year-old carrying a middle-school identification card and a 65-year-old man were among them.