Clickability tracking pixel

How Social Media Is Changing Law Enforcement

Social media raises positive and negative issues for police.

by / December 2, 2011

About This Report

This report is based on the activities of the Digital Communities program, a network of public- and private-sector IT professionals who are working to improve local governments’ delivery of public service through the use of digital technology. The program — a partnership between Government Technology and e.Republic’s Center for Digital Government — consists of task forces that meet online and in person to exchange information on important issues local government IT professionals face.

More than 1,000 government and industry members participate in Digital Communities task forces focused on digital infrastructure, law enforcement and big city/county leadership. The Digital Communities program also conducts the annual Digital Cities and Digital Counties surveys, which track technology trends and identify and promote best practices in local government.

Digital Communities quarterly reports appear in Government Technology magazine in March, June, September and December.



There’s a scene in the 1990 movie Dances With Wolves in which Kevin Costner’s character Lt. Dunbar is traveling with a teamster by horse and wagon to his new post on the Western frontier. They come across a skeleton lying in the grass — an arrow sticking up through its ribs — and the teamster says, “Somebody back East is sayin’ ‘why don’t he write?’”

Today, public safety is a bit more sophisticated, and methods of communication much faster. Law enforcement tools have evolved from wanted posters to police radio, patrol cars and social networks, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.  

Community policing today has also expanded through social networking to locate missing children, alert neighbors of suspicious activity and even inform the public about crimes committed in their neighborhoods.

But social networking is a tool that cuts both ways. Flash mobs organized online in Philadelphia swarmed stores to shoplift and attack pedestrians; pedophiles use social networking platforms to share photos and video; and terrorists recruit members and plan attacks via these tools.

Even the courts have been affected. Jurors have disregarded instructions and have conducted online research, shared their opinions on Twitter from the jury box, and even posted biased comments on their Facebook pages.

In Albuquerque, N.M., a police officer discredited both himself and his department by listing his occupation on Facebook as “human waste disposal.” And in a number of high-profile cases, officers have found their actions posted on YouTube and the subject of hundreds or even thousands of negative comments.

From a 140-character tweet to a 56 MB video clip, social networking is a force that cannot be denied or ignored. We hope this special section will assist law enforcement in embracing and understanding this phenomenon.

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Americans were reminded once again that law enforcement is engaged in an escalating war of new threats, weapons and technologies. It’s a war in which perpetrators can recruit, organize and plan electronically beyond the reach of traditional policing methods. Communication is mobile, motivation may be mass destruction and targets include the innocent. As law enforcement agencies grapple with this new reality, they inevitably encounter social media and social networks.

In August, for example, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced an expanded curfew for minors following flash mob violence. Flash mobs — organized online through various social media — convene at a predetermined time and place for a specific purpose. Though many are harmless or merely pranks, in Philadelphia, the purpose was to rob pedestrians and then swarm through stores shoplifting.

In San Francisco, following a shooting by transit police, protests were organized online in an attempt to block Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations. In perhaps an ill-considered response, BART shut down wireless service in the subway to disrupt organizers, which outraged protesters and created yet more trouble.

But social media is having a positive impact, too. The platforms can be used by law enforcement to broaden intelligence gathering and leverage public support. “We had a very clear example of the importance of that this summer,” said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb of the Seattle Police Department, “when a person became aware of a plot to kill soldiers and civilians at a military processing center with automatic weapons and grenades.”

The Fort-Hood-style plot involved several individuals who were planning a large-scale massacre, said Whitcomb. “Someone came forward and talked to one of our detectives. We got a joint terrorism task force involved and worked with the feds. The two suspects were arrested, and no one was hurt.”

Social networking rapidly has become a valuable intelligence-gathering tool for law enforcement agencies, as well as a source of evidence for defense and prosecution personnel who search Facebook pages, Twitter feeds or YouTube videos seeking to discredit witnesses, establish law enforcement bias, track down evidence or establish associations between gang members. Often, perpetrators brag about their crimes on social networks, and child pornographers and sexual predators have been located and apprehended as a result of their online activities.

Mistrials also have occurred because jurors have disregarded instructions and researched cases online, used Twitter to share their opinions from the jury box, or have posted biased comments on their Facebook pages. For example, in late 2010 during the Chandra Levy murder trial, a prospective juror was dismissed for using Twitter to discuss the case. And in another case, a juror in California was discovered blogging details of a murder case during the trial.

Although social media can help enlist public support, it also can turn on a dime and do the opposite, due in part to the casual nature of the media. In a wake-up call for law enforcement, an Albuquerque, N.M., police officer involved in an on-duty shooting brought discredit to himself and his department when reporters discovered that he listed his occupation as “human waste disposal” on a Facebook profile. And in several high-profile cases, officers’ actions have been posted on YouTube, receiving hundreds or even thousands of negative comments.

Never miss a story with the daily Govtech Today Newsletter.


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.

E.REPUBLIC Platforms & Programs