Law Enforcement Social Media Use Up, But Policies Lacking

Study reports lack of formal training to take advantage of social media as a tool for crime investigation, prevention and anticipation.

by / November 13, 2014

Law enforcement officials are increasingly using social media for crime investigations and prevention, but few agencies have formal policies in place to oversee the practice, according to a new study.

Although 81 percent of law enforcement professionals surveyed said they use sites such as Facebook and Twitter on the job, 52 percent of the agencies lack procedures governing social media use. In addition, only 33 percent of agencies have a dedicated person to monitor social media activity.

The statistics were derived from a November study, Social Media Use in Law Enforcement, conducted by LexisNexis Risk Solutions.

Rick Graham, law enforcement specialist for LexisNexis and former chief of detectives of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office in Florida, told Government Technology that despite the widespread use of social media by law enforcement officers, only 9 percent of respondents had formal training at their agencies, while 75 percent indicated they were self-taught.

“This indicates that there are areas in which law enforcement can significantly improve the effectiveness of how they are using social media as an investigative tool,” Graham said. “There is clear opportunity to enhance this process by adopting new tools and techniques, providing more formal training and placing an increased focus on formalizing their internal procedures.”

Other notable findings from the study include:

  • 63 percent of respondents use social media for crime investigations.
  • 51 percent use social media for crime anticipation.
  • 78 percent of current social media users expect use to increase next year.
  • Facebook (93 percent) and YouTube (67 percent) are most frequently used for investigation purposes.
  • Only 34 percent of agencies that use social media use it to inform the public of crimes, emergencies and disasters.

While Facebook and YouTube are the dominant platforms used by law enforcement, other social media sites are also gaining traction. Use of Twitter has climbed from 29 percent in a similar  study from 2012 to 50 percent in 2014.

One study respondent noted that a "tip from social media user led to medical and mental assistance to a teen who had ingested excess medication in a suicide attempt. Discovered via Tumblr.”

Research for the study was conducted online in February. Feedback was collected from 496 participants running the gamut from local, rural police departments to federal agencies.

“The benefits of social media from an information-gathering and community outreach perspective became very evident during the subsequent investigations of the Boston Marathon bombings and Washington Navy Yard tragedy,” Graham added, in a statement. “It is imperative that … investigators and analysts are fully armed to more effectively take advantage of the power social media provides.”

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.