A survey of 1,221 local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies by LexisNexis Risk Solutions indicates that they are increasingly receptive to and using social media to help their investigations. According to the survey, more than 83% of respondents are currently using social media as an investigative tool, especially Facebook and YouTube. Of the respondents who indicated that they were not currently using social media, 74% indicated that they intend to begin doing so within a year. That would raise social media usage to approximately 95% of respondents within a year.
Approximately 67% of respondents believe that social media helps solve crimes faster. Among those law enforcement agencies indicating that they are currently using social media, the most common uses are: (1) identifying persons of interest (85%); identifying criminal activity (76%); and gathering pictures or statements as corroborating evidence (61%). Interestingly, only 23% of respondents indicated that they use social media to justify search warrants, but evidence held up in court 87% of the time when social media was utilized for that purpose.
Another interesting quirk gleaned from the survey is that state agencies are less likely (71%) than their local and federal counterparts to use social media. But it should come as no surprise that social media is being used as a force multiplier for law enforcement agencies in small communities that have fewer resources than their colleagues at larger agencies. 86% of respondents serving communities with fewer than 50,000 residents report using social media to help with their investigative efforts; in contrast, 78% of respondents in communities with more than 100,000 residents report using social media.
Social media recently assisted police apprehend suspects who were in the midst of a nearly three year crime spree. Police in Ontario credit YouTube as being instrumental in generating leads that resulted in four arrests in connection with more than 130 ATM thefts across Ontario and Quebec. The thefts began back in October 2010 and had continued unabated through this year. Investigators posted a video of the suspects using a blowtorch to gain access to an ATM on YouTube. The video received more than 100,000 views and helped lead to the arrest of four suspects on March 7, 2013.
Law enforcement agencies are discovering that Facebook is a highly effective law enforcement tool as many criminals cannot resist the urge to brag publically about their misdeeds and inexplicably fail to realize that their public posts can be viewed by anyone, including law enforcement personnel. The City of Cincinnati’s success in dismantling a local street gang provides a compelling case study of the effectiveness of Facebook as a means of identifying suspects. Police in Cincinnati made 71 arrests as a result of a nine month investigation that utilized Facebook as a means of identifiying key members of the gang. Authorities created databases of information obtained from social networks, existing police records, and phone records. Working with the University of Cincinnati’s Institute of Crime Science, police used software that analyzed the collected data and established connections between the various suspects which eventually led to the arrest of 71 individuals. Once the police became familiar with social media, they discovered that criminals were brazenly using it to brag about crimes, plotting crimes, setting up drug deals, and even posting incriminating videos.
Social media has become a vital tool for law enforcement. In contrast to just a few years ago, it is the norm today for police to utilize it as an investigative tool. In fact, the use of social media has become so ubiquitous within the law enforcement community that the International Chiefs of Police Center for Social Media now tracks law enforcement agencies’ use of it. However, to realize the full potential of social media as an investigative technique, more formal training must be made available to law enforcement personnel. According to the LexisNexis survey, only 10% of respondents indicated that they had received formal training on how to use social media for investigative purposes. Nevertheless, it is clear that social media has already become a vital investigative tool for law enforcement agencies across the country.