Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been embraced by people around the world. These sites provide easy ways to connect; to provide or to find information. It’s only natural, then, that law enforcement agencies across the country are using social media to help keep their communities safe. While Facebook is great for posting wedding pictures, it’s even better when it can be used to actually solve a crime.
Law enforcement agencies use Twitter and Facebook to alert the public to evolving situations that are unfolding in real time. Citizens and journalists who follow these agencies online receive up-to-date, sometimes up-to-the-minute, information. When a bank gets robbed on Elm Street by a suspect wearing a red hat and driving a blue sedan, the local sheriff or cop on the beat, can post that information online, instantly disseminating critical information that can not only keep people safe but may actually help in apprehending the suspect.
Web-based social media used by law enforcement is the digital version of a police blotter and wanted poster allowing officers on the scene to register events while warning and reaching out to the public for help. Facebook and Twitter posts, and proprietary online programs for anonymous tipsters are force multiplying crime-fighting tools that allow police departments to better engage with the communities they are serving.
And Facebook and Twitter are really only the beginning. Video of criminal suspects, a mainstay on the evening news, can be posted to law enforcement websites, blogs or to YouTube. Proactive police departments can disseminate online videos of an educational nature as a public service. Physical stakeouts can be supplemented with digital stakeouts as some police departments, particularly those battling intense gang activities, look for early warnings of impending criminal activity, much the same way federal authorities monitor online “chatter” in the fight against terrorism.
The exploding popularity of social networking leads millions of people to record their thoughts and activities online, and criminals are no exception. Investigators at both the local and federal level access this publicly available information on personal blogs, Twitter posts and networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, or LinkedIn. Savvy investigators often start with a simple Google search of a name and uncover a treasure trove of useful information.
But social media sites are used for more than reference and cross-checking. Many departments actively engage with the chat features on these sites looking to weed out online predators. The Polk County, Florida Sheriff’s Department for one, is a pioneer in the use of social media, apprehending hundreds of suspects on solicitation charges; suspects who were snared in online chats with police officers posing as minors.
For police departments, social media isn’t a fad or a sideshow. It is the newest weapon in the war on crime and in their efforts to engage with local citizens. Smart law enforcement agencies are embracing this new tool, seeking out Facebook “fans,” Twitter “followers” and more; using every social media tool at their disposal to keep the public safe and catch the bad guys.
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