IN TAKING on gangs involved in drug dealing and violence, police have certain investigative tools, ranging from the use of cooperative witnesses to so-called “controlled drug buys,” in which officers pose as customers. After those methods are exhausted comes the arduous work of trying to convince a Superior Court judge to approve a wiretap of a suspect’s phone. If the court finds that there is sufficient cause to target the suspect, and that there is no other way to obtain the evidence than to tap his or her phone, officers settle into a state-of-the-art wiretap room and hope for a break.
Getting to that point, however, is a lot harder in Massachusetts than other states, according to the state attorney general’s office. That’s because state law permits wiretaps based only on evidence of a “continuing conspiracy among highly organized and disciplined groups’’ engaged in “supplying illegal goods and services.’’ Essentially, it is a narrowly tailored, 1960s-era law aimed at disrupting the activities of the New England Mafia. But organized crime figures no longer occupy a fearsome position in the criminal hierarchy in Massachusetts. Today, urban gangs are far more likely to drive up the murder rate and destabilize communities. Yet their loose organizational structures often place them outside the scope of the wiretap law.