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Stop and Frisk Online

Updated: Nov 7, 2023


Police are increasingly monitoring social media to build evidence for criminal indictments. In 2014, 103 alleged gang members residing in public housing in Harlem, New York, were arrested in what has been called “the largest gang bust in history.” The arrests came after the New York Police Department (NYPD) spent 4 years monitoring the social media communication of these suspected gang members. In this article, we explore the implications of using social media for the identification of criminal activity. We describe everyday racism in digital policing as a burgeoning conceptual framework for understanding racialized social media surveillance by law enforcement. We discuss implications for law enforcement agencies utilizing social media data for intelligence and evidence in criminal cases.

In April 2015, Rose Hackman of the Guardian penned an article that asked, “Is online surveillance the new stop and frisk?” We have seen this played out in the intense scrutiny over the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) stop-and-frisk policies where pedestrians, most often Black and Latino, are stopped, questioned, and frisked for weapons and other forms of contraband.

Hackman examined new online practices where police departments create exhaustive gang or “clique” lists, and the creation of online identities are used to monitor large swaths of communities of color expected to engage in violent and criminal behavior. Hackman’s argument is situated in historical and controversial debates of racial bias in policing practices in the United States.

In 2013, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that stop-and-frisk practices were unconstitutional and directed the police to adopt new policies, which required more justification and documentation if a pedestrian is stopped. Concomitantly, however, the “datafication” of the criminal justice system in New York City occurred as the NYPD increased its resources and interest in social media surveillance of potential violent and criminal perpetrators. In an era of smartphones, status updates, and the sharing and “liking” of the most mundane and the most significant of our everyday experiences, social media platforms shape networking.

Social media facilitates a process by which our public and private lives become integrated, a concept now known as “context collapse” (boyd, 2002; Marwick, 2011). Information that was once unique to one sphere can now be accessed in another. The converging of life domains is further complicated when police scrutiny moves into one’s domestic or private life (Trottier, 2012 a).

In this article, we advance implicit bias research within the context of social media policing. We propose everyday racism in social media policing as an emerging conceptual framework to theorize how, in an era of big data in criminal justice practice, social media policing may adversely affect communities of color. In the following sections, we examine how urban policing has moved online, the racial implications of digital policing, we consider how race affects social media policing through the juxtaposition of social media use during the 2014 arrest of Black youth in New York City public housing.

We then pose an emerging conceptual framework for examining implicit bias in digital policing, utilizing the post hoc social media monitoring in the case of Dylan Ruff, the perpetrator of the Charleston church shooting in 2015 that killed nine people including State Senator Clementa C. Pinckney. We conclude with a discussion of how implicit bias in digital policing as a conceptual framework may support new empirical studies and challenge current social media policing policies and practices that lack a firm consideration of how race impacts how online data are interpreted and used in criminal cases.

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