Is There An Easier Way to Catch a Criminal?

By David Browne, J.D., Program Chair of Security Studies

CTU Criminal Justice Degree - How to catch a criminalGang crime has long been a problem in the nation’s large and small cities. Gang experts work hard to develop inside sources who can inform them about the inner workings and plans of gangs. Police departments also use undercover officers in attempts to infiltrate gangs. But undercover operations are difficult to conduct and are also potentially dangerous for the undercover agent. Fortunately, recent developments in social media may reduce the frequency of undercover operations.

Gang members are known to issue taunts and threats on the street. They shout for passersby to throw up gang signs or to ‘tag’ their gang names and symbols in conspicuous spots in other gang territory. These threats often lead to violent confrontations in defense of so-called honor, to protect drug locales or attempt revenge. Gang members make these threats, but now some are using social media to do it. Rival gangs are paying attention, but they’re not the only ones.

Police Mining Through Social Media

Police departments in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles now have officers dedicated to the investigation of social media sites. These social media officers use profiles developed by officers on the street to check Facebook pages, tweets and even websites. Frequently, officers find that gang members have posted or tweeted about ongoing criminal activity.

In a recent case an offender, a member of a violent street gang, posted details regarding an armed robbery he’d committed on the campus of a university. The perpetrator included information about the time, location and victim of the crime, and bragged to friends describing in detail what he had done and said to the victim. He also posted pictures of himself with the robbery weapon and the proceeds – the cash, laptop and designer purse he took from the victim.  

For this reason, police departments are now looking into training officers to infiltrate gangs via the Internet. Some have opposed the idea stating the expectation of privacy when using social media, though the method has been used in a number of previous investigations. For one, the FBI conducts investigations to catch pedophiles using officers posing as innocent juveniles online. With regard to gang investigations, case law suggests officers using false identities to gather information on gang crimes and threats won’t violate reasonable expectations of privacy, since social media sites are public forums.

Why not use technology that can advance criminal investigations? With perpetrators feeling free enough to post details of crimes on social media, it could save police much time, effort and cost in catching them.


CTU Program Chair for Security Studies David BrowneDavid Browne, J.D., spent over 14 years as a special agent in the FBI and most recently as a crime analyst at the University of Chicago for six years. He earned a J.D. law degree from Case Western Reserve University and a Bachelor of Psychology from the University of Michigan. He is currently program chair of Security Studies at Colorado Technical University. Connect with him on LinkedIn.


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Image credit: Flickr/davidsonscott15


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