Social media sites provide a great way to keep up with friends and family. They can help you meet new friends, or reconnect with old ones—and if you’re a member of law enforcement, they can help you find a possible suspect. Today, more and more law enforcement agencies are using social media as an investigation tool, even though that wasn’t social media’s traditional function.

Police departments across the country initially created Twitter and Facebook accounts to improve the public’s perception of law enforcement. For example, the Bellevue Police Department in Nebraska continues to post memes, photos and videos to show a more affable side of themselves. In June 2017, Lincoln Police Officer Courtney Leaver challenged the department to a dance-off via Twitter during National Sheriff’s Week. The call was answered when six officers broke out their dance moves for a short video.

However, the social media strategies of law enforcement agencies across the nation have matured, and their accounts now sport information relating to traffic accident, PR events and ongoing investigations. Today, social media helps police build relationships, and that in turn helps them do their jobs.

Social media to topple crime

In 2017, Sydney Loofe, a 24-year-old from Lincoln, Neb., was reported missing and later found deceased in Clay County. Without the help of her digital “breadcrumbs,” Loofe’s remains might not have been discovered.

According to an article written by Lori Pilger for the Lincoln Journal Star, the Lincoln Police Department used information from Loofe’s social media accounts, cellphone and bank information to help discover her last known location.

In Pilger’s article, Larry Barksdale, a retired Lincoln police investigator, said “a digital footprint includes cellphones. But it also includes information from online apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, from credit card purchases or ATM visits, and from cameras along the state’s highways, outside gas stations or inside businesses…” In this case, Bailey Boswell and Aubrey Trail also posted videos denying their involvement which helped police locate them. Trail and Boswell are currently facing charges, including first-degree murder in Saline County.

In this instance, the Lincoln Police Department used social media as an investigation tool which aided in solving a crime, but that’s not always the case.

In late 2017, Kenneka Jenkins’ body was discovered in a walk-in freezer at a Hotel in Rosemont, Ill. Her death was ruled an accident by the Cook County medical examiner. Her death soon became an internet phenomenon which sparked countless conspiracy theories. Amateur web sleuths utilized social media as an investigation tool by analyzing video footage to provide information to the local police department.

According to an article in the Chicago Tribune by Kim Janssen and John Keilman, “Rosemont Mayor Bradley Stephens said local police are working with outside agencies to investigate Jenkins’ death but that fevered online guesswork about the case is hindering the probe.”

While tips from the public are helpful in solving some cases, law enforcement officers are required to follow-up on every lead, which can be taxing on a metropolitan police force — let alone a small-town department.

Using social media to identify criminal activity

According to Doug Wylie of PoliceOne, “Many criminals have posted damning evidence of their crimes on social media.” This includes gang-affiliated individuals who brag about their exploits to intimidate rivals or gain status. Because of this behavior, gang members are more likely than individual offenders to leave evidence online.

In Heather Kelly’s article for CNN.com, the Cincinnati Police Department used social media as an investigation tool to identify members of a local street gang. Seventy-one members were arrested in 2008 after a nine-month social media investigation.

Law enforcement can also use social media as an investigation tool to acquire probable cause for a search warrant. So far, this practice has not been challenged in court as some laws are not necessarily up to speed with the digital age.

Wylie spoke with Rick Graham, a former Chief of Detectives in Jacksonville, Fla. who said, “Gathering a mountain of evidence from social media and being able to properly analyze it transforms raw information into ‘actionable intelligence’ and results in the effective deployment of valuable resources.”

In addition, agencies can surveil social media sites through software programs, including X1 Social Discovery, Geofeedia and MediaSonar. Though these programs have helped solve crimes and locate suspects, they don’t come without baggage.

Creating laws for social media surveillance

Law enforcement’s use of social media surveillance software has spurred some controversy. The American Civil Liberties Union has voiced concerns about whether using social media as an investigation tool could be abused to monitor those who are not suspected in any crime.

According to Jonah Engel Bromwich, Daniel Victor and Mike Isaac for the New York Times, the location-based analytics platform Geofeedia pinpoints a user’s location from social media sites, then markets that information to law enforcement agencies. Geofeedia helped Baltimore police officials locate protests following Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody in 2015.

Users of said social media platforms were concerned with each company’s lack of oversight on how their data is used. This is what first piqued the ACLU’s interest in protecting people’s online information.

The ACLU helped create Community Control Over Police Surveillance laws to “ensure residents, through local city councils are empowered to decide if and how surveillance technologies are used, through a process that maximizes the public’s influence over those decisions.”

CCOPS laws have been passed in cities, such as Seattle, Nashville, Berkeley and many more. California and Maine have even passed statewide CCOPS laws.

Social media is a great tool to use both personally and professionally, and in time, it will become an even more integral part of daily life. Law enforcement agencies currently use these platforms to relay information and build rapport with their communities, and that’s benefited them enormously. It’s a privilege to be responsible for upholding justice, and safeguarding the public’s data is a part of that. By following CCOPS laws and standards (even if no relevant law exists in your jurisdiction), law enforcement officers can protect public privacy while continuing to use social media as an effective investigative tool.

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