In the past decade, a dramatic increase in the number of gangs — and their members — has occurred throughout the United States. Virtually no state is immune as statistics indicate that 95 percent of the larger cities and 88 percent of the smaller communities throughout America are experiencing a growing number of gang-related and often violent crimes.
Correspondingly, as many law enforcement agencies responded to this problem by initiating a model program at the fabled Rickers Island facility — and it is one they say, that can be used by other corrections departments elsewhere, benefitting law enforcement agencies throughout the country.
A Department Responds
Officials in the New York City Department of Corrections have responded to this problem by initiating a model program at the fabled Rikers Island facility — and it is one they say, that can be used by other corrections departments elsewhere, benefitting law enforcement agencies throughout the country.
In March 1997, the NYC Department of Corrections formed a Gang Intelligence Unit (GIU). Soon after, they installed an enhanced "Superbase" computer program that compiled all of the department's security risk group information into one database. The system was so successful that outside agencies who were made aware of the information, began to work with the department to gather intelligence for their own investigations.
There began the foundation for a growing liaison and networking project among corrections and area aw enforcement agencies that is lauded by officials and officers alike. Most significantly, the program is working.
"I think one of the most important parts of the whole thing that happened is that never in the history of New York City did the Department of Corrections ever work with outside agencies for investigative purposes," said Bernard B. Kerik, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Corrections.
"Now it is done on a daily basis," he told POLICE.
The New York City Department of Corrections is one of the largest municipal jail systems in the country and averages a daily population of approximately 19,205 inmates, many of whom are incarcerated at Rikers Island.
Rikers Island comprises 10 major jails with a combined capacity of more than 16,000 inmates. There are six borough jails: one in Manhattan, one in Queens, two in Brooklyn and two in the Bronx. They have a combined capacity of approximately 4,000 detainees who are awaiting trial.
Inmates who are seriously ill or who require psychiatric observation are held in prison wards that the NYC Department of Corrections operates in Elmhurst General Hospital, Kings County Hospital and Bellevue Hospital.
According to the New York City Department of Corrections, they average a daily inmate population of 19,205, more inmates than the prison system in 32 states and one of the largest in the nation.
"We run through the prison system about 130,000 inmates a year, on the average, so there is no reason why we shouldn't have the largest database on the criminal histories of gang members," Commissioner Kerik said. "When the New York City Police Department or the FBI were conducting investigations, prior to the creation of our intelligence unit, the investigation stopped once the person was in the system.
"That is no longer the case. Their investigation cannot only continue, but in several cases in the last year we have been primary factors in the NYPD and the FBI completing their investigations as a result of the information that comes from within our system," he added.
"Security Risk Groups" Targeted
At the present time, according to Deputy Warden Emmanuel bailey, who heads the Gang Intelligence Unit (GIU), approximately 55 officially titled "Security Risk Groups" (SRG) are being tracked with the system at Rikers, including major national gangs such as the Latin Kings, the Bloods, the Crips, and the Neatas. The GIU is also tracking groups that are affiliated with organized crime and narcotics.
"Some are not the traditional street gangs. Some are drug gangs," bailey said, adding that NYPD has helped them by adding a box on their arrest form. The box is checked if the arresting officer finds that the suspect is affiliated with any type of SRG. A fax is sent to the GIU unit on a 24-hour-a-day basis that details any security risk group members who have been arrested.
"We pass that information on to our facilities and, in turn, it is up to our facilities to also identify any security risk group members. Some may be recruited while they are in here," said Deputy Warden Bailey.
Detailed information cards are supplied to every correctional officer in order to keep track of these groups. Every officer is instructed to fill out the cards and the SRG information is entered into the computer.[PAGEBREAK]
An important piece of that information is gang codes. The GIU or Gang Intelligence Unit has developed a detailed breakdown of these codes. For example, the Blood will use "Attica" to mean, "attack without thinking," or "Brace Yourself," (intelligence over emotions, or don't get him now, get him later), "Mr. Window" (murder someone, "365" (everything is good), "10-10" (keep in touch). There is even a code for "I love and miss my kids"- "Flintstone."
These codes are given to GIU through confidential informants. According to Deputy Warden Bailey, they even have a code named after him, "Bailey" which means "rock someone to sleep" or "everything is right, nothing is going to happen."
In addition to documents these codes, the computer information used by the intelligence unit includes information on basic personal data, including name, gang affiliation, gang rank, date made, mannerisms, aliases, weapons, enemies, associates, warrants, prior arrests, front and side headshots and physical characteristics including photos of tattoos, scars and markings.
Designed internally, the system also tracks housing assignments, classifications, work details, movement to and from courts and visit information.
The correctional facility also keeps an inactive list that includes names and aliases for prisoners who have been released. "This is very helpful to the police department," said Bailey.
The vast database is impressive. For example, if a law enforcement agency needs information on a suspect and all it has is a certain tattoo for a suspect, the GIU can enter that information into the computer and generate names and photos of suspects.
The database is also used to assist outside agencies in other inquiries. When the NYPD was investigating a gang known as the "Selover Boys," it gave GIU an organized chart of the gang. The Narcotic Investigative Tracking of recidivist Offenders Unit (NITRO) from the NYPD was attempting to locate suspects who were wanted for numerous murders of children used to see narcotics. Of the 22 known members, GIU identified six as being in the jail's custody and thus was able to provide NITRO with detailed information as to inmate visitor and telephone activities.
According to Commissioner Kerik, the jail is unique place in that it can gather information on suspects that cannot be obtained on the outside. Once a law enforcement agency arrests a suspect, whatever information it has gathered then stops, said Kerik.
"The corrections officers live with these prisoners. They see them on a daily basis. They know their colors, their identifiers. They know and understand their language and codes and their hand signals.
"They get to see things that the police and investigative bodies on the outside don't get to see because they are there 24 hours-a-day, living with these people.
"In addition to that, we have access to phenomenal information that the police department could never get without subpoenas or warrants. We can look at the phone calls that every inmate makes, so that if you care conducting an investigation, for example, on the Latin Kinds, and you have a Latin King leader in jail, and you want to find out where the hub is on the outside, we can do that through a very sophisticated telephone analysis."
Kerik is proud of what the GIU has accomplished in the past few years. "In the past there has always been a lot of data collected, but it was not put into a central place. As a result it was sitting around and nobody did anything with it. Once the gang intelligence unit was created, it blossomed."[PAGEBREAK]
A Liaison Grows
Correction officer investigators from Rikers, are now assigned to the NYPD's intelligence division and the "Cold Case Squad" (which handles gang- related crimes and unsolved homicides), the New York High Intensity Drug Trafficking unit (a federal drug information center), and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Gang information is shared on a regular basis between these agencies.
Said Lewis Rice, Jr., special agent in charge of the New York Office of the DEA, having a correctional officer assigned to him, "is an asset to the DEA Unified Intelligence Unit. It has greatly enhanced the exchange of information. The New York City Department of Correction's wealth of intelligence on gang membership, activities, codes, signs and methods of operation, is an integral part of our drug investigations and tactical operations," he told POLICE.
Unified Intelligence Division
The Unified Intelligence Division (UID) consists of three agencies: the New York City Police Department, the DEA and the New York State Police. Their mission is to gather, share and disseminate intelligence pertaining to narcotics in the greater New York City area.
NYPD Sgt. Lenny Lemer is a group supervisor for the Unified Intelligence Division. He said he found the information that they received from the corrections department extremely helpful. "It is very effective in allowing us to integrate a vast source of knowledge from an investigative standpoint into the knowledge that we presently possess. It gives us a real advantage that we did not have," he explained.
Part of that information focuses on trends. According to Deputy Warden bailey, the weapon of the moment within the prison system is razors and scalpels. "What tends to happen in here tends to manifest itself out there," he said.
"I am guaranteeing you this: The next weapon you will see out there that can be hidden and will be popular with these organizations and with these young kids who don't know, is the scalpel. The scalpel is the weapon of choice. The density of it is real thin. It is smaller than a razor. You can get it at hobby stores."
In addition to inmates already within the corrections system, the jail arrests, on the average, 10 to 15 people weekly who are trying to bring contraband into the inmates.
This contraband includes both weapons and narcotics. Members of GIU then debrief the suspects who are arrested, and according to Commissioner Kerik, "whatever information they give us relating to narcotics possession or distribution will go back to the DEA and or the New York City Police Department's narcotics units.
"Therefore we have a constant flow of information out of the jails back onto the streets and that comes back to us basically as a result of the arrests they make.
"It goes in a full circle so that we keep the investigative intelligence network going. We are constantly getting information of these groups."
The New York City Corrections Department gets inquiries from all over the country, and credits its information with stopping an assassination attempt on both a police officer and four federal judges. Recently, it received a query from Fairbanks, Alaska where the area is experiencing a problem with the Bloods. Because of the city's problems there, it is also setting up a superbase program similar to the NYC Corrections department.
"If they have a Blood problem in Fairbanks Alaska, we want to help them." Deputy Warden Bailey said.
Information such as telephone records and who visits the inmates can become key information for an outside agency's investigation. "Inmates sometimes think they are very smart, but they don't realize that we have access to all of their visits and all of their visitors' information," said Commissioner Kerik.
By keeping close track of its inmates and collecting essential data, the corrections department has become an invaluable asset to other law enforcement agencies.
It Could Work Anywhere
"I think this would be just as effective in any other area, the only caveat being the corrections bureau would have to set up their database in a similar fashion. The key to the whole system is what the Department of Corrections in New York City has done to accumulate the intelligence that they have and then be able to share it with other agencies.
"In this instance, the information is being shared at the very least, with the DEA as well as the New York State Police," said NYPD's Sgt. Lemer.
Corrections Commissioner Kerik agreed. "This could be effective in any department. Any criminal agency can find it extremely effective. What you need is the cooperation and the coordination with the outside agencies.
"First and foremost you have to have the intelligence network inside. You have to have the investigative tools inside and then you have to let the people on the outside know what is available to them.
"Once that is done, there is no system in the United States where people on the outside would say there is nothing we could use in the jail system," he said. "Our statistics will show you that not only do they need what we have, not only do they substantially use what we have, but what we have is of a major benefit to those outside. It could be used anywhere, federal, state, municipally.
"It could be used anywhere."
Shelly Feuer Domash is a freelance writer living in the New York City area who regularly covers the police beat for the New York Times. She is a longtime and frequent contributor to POLICE magazine. Her most recent article for POLICE was a profile on the burgeoning field of database compilation programs for our Technology report in the October 1998 issue. This report followed numerous interviews and a day spent at Rikers Island.