How Law Enforcement Agencies are Using Social Media

By Richard Holloway, J.D.

CTU Criminal Justice Degree - Law Enforcement and Social Media“Hey, @SeattlePD: What’s the Latest?” is the title of a New York Times article discussing one of the more interesting uses of social media by law enforcement. The article describes a new Seattle police department Twitter campaign that involves the agency launching 51 “hyper-local,” computer-automated Twitter accounts, in addition to their main profile. The project is called “Tweets-by-beat,” and it transforms the traditional police blotter into a real-time source of information, neighborhood by neighborhood. Of course, they’ve excluded certain crimes to ensure the communication of real-time information doesn’t hinder investigations, but also because of a concern that the reporting of certain types of crimes – like domestic violence – may discourage citizens from contacting law enforcement. All in all, there are some drawbacks the new outreach campaign, but the project seems quite promising and offers a fresh level of transparency to the people of Seattle.

While not every law enforcement agency is as ambitious as the Seattle PD, social media has become quite popular with criminal justice agencies. The International Chiefs of Police (IACP) Center for Social Media tracks law enforcement agencies’ use of social media, taking the extra step to publish lists of the top agencies in term of social media usage. Here are some fun facts on large law enforcement municipalities:

Fighting crime with social media

The uses of social media are growing within law enforcement agencies. It’s reported that agencies are leveraging social media for police blotters, digital “most wanted” posters, anonymous tips, social media stakeouts and infiltrating gangs using phony profiles. The Prince George’s County police department in Maryland is using technology to achieve another traditional community purpose – the virtual ride-along.

More important, social media is being used to achieve a traditional law enforcement goal – apprehend criminals. 4 out of 5 law enforcement officers use social media for investigative purposes, including to locate missing persons or probationers and parolees who skip town, or otherwise violate the conditions of their release.

Savvy law enforcement agents can use social media to friend individuals that may be involved in gang activity, or who are associates of known gang members as a means to gain access to pictures and information freely shared online. Law enforcement agents create phony Facebook and Twitter accounts, using them to gain entrance to the social networks of less tech-savvy criminals. Gangs are using social media to communicate and law enforcement is listening.

Beyond capturing criminals, social media is also useful in prosecuting them. Social media evidence used in court has held up 87 percent of the time. “Forensic Social Media” is used to describe how investigators are using evidence from social media sites to further criminal investigations. This includes photo and video evidence posted by criminals, witnesses and occasionally government agencies that post images hoping the public can help identify perpetrators.

Ethical use of social media in law enforcement

While the ways in which social media can be leveraged by criminal justice agencies is just now being explored, we already know that with the amount of monitoring law enforcement does on social media, there are growing concerns about just how closely “Big Brother” is watching us.

This means that it’s not enough for criminal justice agencies to actively participate in the use of social media. Agencies must also put policies in place to ensure privacy concerns are addressed. Organizations like IACP have introduced model policies that can be adopted. IACP suggests a minimum of three policies:

  1. A policy for the agency’s use of social media
  2. A policy for the use of social media in investigations
  3. A policy for off-duty personnel’s use of social media

Social media offers a level of transparency between individuals and organizations that we’re never experienced before. The doors of communication are wide-open, yet with such fluid streams of data flowing in and between law enforcement agencies and the community-at-large, policies must consider the complexities of people and the changing ways in which they use social media. Agencies, whether large or small, must dedicate resources (human and capital) to social media because it’s proven not to be a passing trend. When implemented effectively, social media has tremendous benefits for criminal justice agencies. Executed poorly…well, we’ll know about it – in real-time!

Image credit: Flickr/Alex Holzknecht