Police Use Social Media as Front-Line Tool in Fighting Crime

The prevalence of social media has made it a valuable go-to investigative tool for law enforcement, whether for small-time crimes or more serious cases involving life and death.

by / April 4, 2016
Twitter Screenshot from ‏@TheMattHerrera

When a football-wielding spring breaker in Alabama threw what many would consider to be a near-perfect spiral toward a city of Gulf Shores squad car, the police didn't overreact, they turned to social media and a sense of humor to track him down. 

The now-viral video, originally posted by another party-goer on March 16, shows a man police believed to be Texan Kameron Heady cocking back and launching the pigskin over a crowded Alabama beach, toward officers trying to break up the festivities.

Onlookers, obviously frustrated by the police interruption, can be heard in the background shouting profanities and cheering Heady on.

After being notified of the incident in a tagged tweet, Cpl. Josh Coleman, who supervises the Gulf Shores Police Department’s social media team, said investigators turned to Twitter and traditional police work to track him down. 

Their response was released in humorous statement embedded in the original video. It read: “Hey Kameron, We found you. Great arm. Bad decision. An arrest warrant has been issued for you. You can turn yourself in at the Gulf Shores Police Department.”

“[The communications office] was keeping an eye on things and noticed that someone tagged us in the video…,” Coleman said. “I think the tag was more along the lines of ‘FYI, someone’s not only throwing a football at you, but they’re posting a video about it too.’”

Coleman said it didn’t take long for his department to track Heady down and positively identify him with the help of his hometown police department. Heady faces misdemeanor harassment charges, which carry as much as a $500 fine and six months in jail.

“We took that and started working on who this guy was, and obviously his name was in there also, or at least his Twitter handle, but we were able to contact the city he lived in and speak with the police department, and positively ID him,” Coleman said. “So we used not only social media investigative skills, but also old-fashioned detective work too, making calls and following up on information that was available on his feed.” 

As social media becomes a regular part of many people’s daily lives, police agencies across the country have continued to leverage it as an investigative resource. According to a 2013 Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) report, four out of five police agencies surveyed reported that social media was regularly used for investigative purposes, and more than 80 percent of responding officials cited the practice as “critically important to the future.”

While the case in Gulf Shores was a straightforward trail of digital breadcrumbs and old-fashioned investigative legwork, other agencies have leveraged false/undercover accounts to “friend or follow” a suspect on social media to gain access to information they would not otherwise have through more public avenues.

For open and public accounts, like Twitter, information may be readily available to investigators by simply clicking on an account, video, tweet etc. In Gulf Shores, this was the case.  

With the usefulness of the popular platforms for law enforcement comes the inherent concerns associated with the constitutional protections under the Fourth Amendment, which addresses unreasonable search and seizure. The debate is far from settled and often comes down to internal policies and interpretations of existing protections.

In Boston, social media represents a value outreach to both inform the public and solve serious crimes. Lt. Detective Mike McCarthy said the more than 360,000 followers on the Boston Police Department’s Twitter account has led to vital information in cases ranging from bank robberies to sexual assaults and homicides.

“We use it as a community outreach tool … where we seek help and we take tips from the community through it,” he said. “We don’t do any investigations into social media itself, but we use a lot of open source stuff that our investigators will use, what’s publicly available, to aid in their investigations.”

McCarthy said the online resources have become a front-line tool in crime fighting and are regularly used to push information, like video clips and photos, to engage the public in identifying suspects.

As a trusted source of public information, the city’s police department social feeds also give access to fact-based information in an online world of conjecture and speculation, McCarthy said.

“It’s a great way to get accurate and timely information out, and we’re a trusted source, so people tend to look to us first,” he said, adding that people look to law enforcement for accurate information given the amount of misinformation out there from the public's use of social media.

"So we look at our role as important in getting the correct and accurate information out through our social media," he said. "We used it during the [Boston Marathon] bombing, and it proved to be a very effective way for us to get accurate and timely information out, and correct some of the misinformation that was already out there.”

The prevalence of social media has made it a valuable go-to investigative tool for law enforcement, whether for small-time crimes like this one or more serious cases involving life and death crimes, McCarthy said.

“Recently there was a video posted in the next county where someone … was high on one of these bath salts, and their investigators tracked them down because of a child welfare concern, which was an obvious issue with the video …,” he said. “It’s becoming more and more common because of how often people post things out there, and really the way we look at it is, we don’t want to waste an opportunity to solve a crime. That might be what it takes to close it. So we are definitely very active with [social media], and when that is available, you don’t want to waste that source.”

The department, despite the obvious irritation over being targeted by a weighty projectile, has maintained an engaging sense of humor that many have shared through their social media channels.

Their officers have even tweeted photos of themselves donning football helmets in response. 

During a March 28 interview with Fox & Friends, Police Chief Edward Delmore commented on the video of Heady calling him a “knucklehead” and “idiot” and said his alleged actions equated to “stupid human tricks.”

“To give the devil his due, he does have a good arm and he had good aim," Delmore said. "But the problem for him became when one of his friends tweeted it, and we monitor social media, and you could say we intercepted it and made a video of our own."

Since the department issued the warrant for Heady’s arrest, Coleman said someone identifying themselves as his counsel has reached out to authorities. Delmore said it is unlikely he will get the stiffest penalty available, but did say it also depends on how frustrated they get in the process of negotiating his surrender. 

“Ultimately it’s a misdemeanor case, so we are not going to go to Texas to pick him up," Coleman said, "but the quicker this is resolved, the better it is for everybody."

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.