By the end of his senior year in a Philadelphia high school in June 2017, Jamal had missed out on completing his certification in the culinary arts, playing on the basketball team, attending prom, and walking across the stage at his graduation. He was barred from working a job to help his mother pay the bills. He wasn’t even allowed to leave his home — all on the order of a judge. But Jamal hadn’t been convicted of a crime. Jamal lost a year of his life because — like many testosterone-filled young men — he acted tough on his social media accounts.
Jamal, a young black man — whose name has been changed at his request due to confidentiality concerns — was swept up in Philadelphia’s Focused Deterrence program, an initiative meant to crack down on gang violence but which has instead been used to criminalize entire social networks of young black and brown people. Philadelphia police arrested him in September 2016 on a gun charge after an officer in the department’s South Gang Task Force identified Jamal as a member of a gang. How had that officer made that determination? As officer Matthew York, a member of the task force, later testified in court, it was largely based on photos and tweets that appeared on Jamal’s social media and which York believed associated him with a gang, as well as Jamal’s appearance in a friend’s music video, a video that the officer believed was “gang-related.”
Philadelphia’s Focused Deterrence program, like similar programs in cities around the country, relies on internet surveillance. Police officers mine social media for possible gang affiliations of young people, then compile that “data” and feed it into gang databases. Police officers target young people in the databases — who may be included for as little as flashing a gang sign in a Tweet to bragging about a crime in a music video on YouTube and Facebook — for on-the-ground policing. State and federal prosecutors also get their hands on the social-media “data,” using it to shore up criminal cases. Philadelphia modeled Focused Deterrence after criminologist David Kennedy’s “Ceasefire” policing model, which, as I previously reported in IThe Appeal and The Nation, focuses policing on small groups of individuals (often referred to by police departments as “gangs”) that purportedly drive community violence. The Kennedy model and its offshoot programs have been deployed by many cities, including Baltimore, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans.
But the “data” police feed into these databases, for the most part, has little bearing on reality. Indeed, in December the City of Chicago settled a lawsuit with a man who was falsely included in its sprawling gang database. Across the country, young people are swept into these databases and then targeted by police — just because they bragged about actions they had no part in or made threats against rival groups they have no intention of following up on…