Scotland Yard has set up a team of millennial detectives to scour social media for signs of gang crime, violence and drug dealing.
The unit, which comprises of eight officers, all under the age of 25, uses “open source intelligence”, on platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat to look for signs of trouble.
The officers, who all have previous experience working in Met gang units, are familiar with code words and slang used by young people who are dealing in drugs and weapons online.
Gang members have also used social media platforms, such as YouTube to goad rivals and arrange violent showdowns.
But in the six months since Operation Alpha was set up, Scotland Yard has been able to intervene in a number of incidents that were being organised online.
In one example, the team successfully disrupted a terrifying trend in which gangs of young thugs were arranging to meet at shopping centres, before “rushing” into branches of JD Sports, overwhelming the staff and stealing merchandise.
After spotting groups discussing potential targets online, the unit was able to alert the store’s own security and also ensure police were on hand to arrest those who were gathering.
Detective Chief Superintendent Mike West said the officers working in the unit were highly skilled at spotting certain language that was used online to discuss criminal enterprises.
The majority of officers working on the team a native Londoners who grew up in some of the capital’s most challenging areas and so understand many of the issues faced by the people they are investigating.
Mr West said: “They spot threats in a different way. The terminology used by gangs, the differences between south London and north London and the type of slang used.
“We want to be on the front foot of open source intelligence. This is about understanding what is a threat now, what is a threat today and spotting what is coming over the horizon.”
“We are stopping serious offending happening, serious violence, firearms related crime, knife related crime, knife sales, drug dealing on Snapchat and Instagram at scale.”
Mr West said some youngsters were brazenly using social media platforms to boast of their criminal activity, but this freely available material was a good source of intelligence for the police.
The unit, which is Home Office funded is currently working with five other major police forces around the country but has plans to expand even further next year.