Boston police tried to stop the public from videotaping officers under the state’s wiretapping act, and arrested an attorney for recording officers with his cellphone. In that case — Glik v. Cunniffe — the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that such videotaping is a free speech right protected under the First Amendment. Mobile devices and social media bring football’s instant replay capability to law enforcement and to thousands of armchair quarterbacks around the world. It’s also important to remember that nothing on social media ever goes away.

Law enforcement agencies around the country may see social media as a double-edged sword, but it’s here to stay and must be placed in the tool belts of officers and departments.

According to Dunwoody, Ga., Police Chief Billy Grogan, embracing social media is one of the smartest decisions law enforcement can make today. In an article written for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Grogan outlined three reasons for this: Social networks offer a natural platform for extending community policing efforts. They provide a way for departments to promote positive accomplishments. And finally, the continuing popularity of these networks simply makes them hard to ignore.

“The need is there. The people are there,” Grogan wrote. “Why aren’t you and your department?”

Investigations: The Good

Lt. Charles L. Cohen of the Indiana State Police has been training state and local police agencies on social media usage since 2002. He said that while criminals are using mobile devices to hide their activities, social media offers huge benefits to law enforcement.

“Investigative targets are putting a lot more information voluntarily online,” said Cohen. “It’s readily available and helps us paint a true and accurate picture of what individuals are doing.”

For example, pertinent information can be learned if a member of a criminal organization attends a family reunion and then a video of it is uploaded to YouTube. “That helps investigators put faces with street names and put people in association with others, when you ordinarily wouldn’t be able to do that,” Cohen said. “Even five years ago, if you wanted to show an association between two people, you had to do surveillance. Now you can just go to blogs, video or image sharing sites, and in many cases, find those pictures.”

Images on social media sites also often yield other information of interest to the investigator. Photo background information was used last year to find a child pornographer and his victim, Cohen said. Metadata and geotagging of images can help locate where and when photos were taken.

And it’s not just social media that’s providing easily available information. Investigators also can get help from government websites, which now provide large amounts of information online. “Most assessors’ offices [and] most county recorders put information on the Internet about your house,” Cohen said. “You can find out online where I bought my house, when, from whom and how much I paid for it. You can find out who my neighbors are, what my neighbors do for a living — all this information is available.”

Whitcomb explained that checking social networks for information is now routine investigative work. “Let’s say we get a name of a possible suspect in a shooting, would I look to see if that person had a Twitter or Facebook account? Of course I would. It’s just detectives doing good detective work. You need a warrant to go where the public can’t go. But if you can grab it online, you’re good to go. It’s like electronic canvassing — no different from going out door-to-door saying, ‘Did you see or hear anything?’”

Mike Edwards, a special assignments lieutenant with the Seattle Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Bureau, said criminals sometimes think they are anonymous online. “There was a prolific motorcycle thief,” he said. “We found out he had a Facebook page, and he would post photos of himself on the stolen motorcycles. With that evidence, we were able to get a conviction. Some of them he took to chop shops, and we were able to arrest folks in the chop shops as well. So that was purely a social media tool.”

Edwards, a 31-year police veteran, said some cases lean heavily on social networking. Another example included a blog post that had references to social media and chat rooms, which detectives determined were being used by a pimp. “We were able to secure the arrest and recover two juvenile prostitutes and reunite them with their families.”

An investigation now, said Edwards, “covers the gamut, from your Craigslist-type postings where it’s seller-to-seller with fraud going on, all the way to an individual who is using social media to share specific criminal knowledge or evidence with other individuals because they’re so darn proud of what they’re doing.”

Seattle police also use social media for early warnings about events that can impact public safety. For instance, city leaders monitored social networks on the proposed Sept. 17 “Day of Rage,” which fortunately didn’t amount to much.

“We want to make sure we’ve got enough staff to ensure that people who demonstrate can do so safely, that traffic can move, and that public safety is achieved,” Whitcomb said. “So that’s just proper planning.”

Wayne Hanson  | 

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.