Social media has enabled us all to communicate on a level that wasn’t possible before; we can reach out to thousands or even millions of people around the world within a few seconds. Whether we tweet a message, Instagram a picture, ask a question on Reddit, or comment on a Facebook thread, social media gives us a virtually infinite audience. This unique communicative aspect of social media has also influenced law enforcement. More and more agencies use Twitter and Facebook to solve crimes and interact with civilians.
A 2012 study that surveyed 1,200 federal, state, and local law enforcement professionals found that 2/3 believe social media helps solve crimes more quickly, while only 1/10 learned how to use social media for investigation through formal training at their law enforcement agency. The vast majority don’t use social media to fight crime due to a lack of access and familiarity – 70% are either unable to access social media during work hours or do not have enough background to use it. Yet, law enforcement agencies across the country (and globe) increasingly use social media as a crime-fighting tool.
The Wellesley Police Department was the first law enforcement agency to ever create a Twitter account in 2007. Now, Twitter is becoming an increasingly vital part of law enforcement efforts in the U.S. In 2013, 772 police department had active Twitter accounts to relay information to the public, create a local presence, and assist with criminal investigation. All together, these police departments have nearly 3 million followers. With law enforcement agencies (and civilians) becoming increasingly social media savvy, this number is only likely to rise.
The Oklahoma County Sheriff’s office introduced “Warrant Wednesday” and “Fugitive Friday” on their Facebook and Twitter pages, which enables citizens to provide real-time information on violators to help catch one of the 60,000 countywide fugitives. The office stated that the public is very active regarding sharing this kind of information and contacting the authorities if they know the location of a fugitive. The office has so far arrested 25% of the suspects made public via their social media sites.
However, Twitter and Facebook are not the only crime-fighting social media tools. The Oakland Police Department uses Nextdoor (a neighborhood community app) and Nixle (a public notification app), in addition to their Facebook and Twitter accounts. The Oakland Police Department started incorporating these social media platforms after a man entered Oikos University, a Korean Christian college in Oakland, and shot and killed seven people in 2012. Two officers used Twitter and Nixle at the time to post updates, quiet rumors, and send emergency alerts throughout the day.
Image-sharing social media platforms can be helpful as well. Last February, the police in Redwood City, CA, found bags of stolen jewelry in the trunk of a car during a routine traffic stop. Thereupon, the police department used Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest to post pictures of a bracelet with names and dates in hopes of tracking down the owner. After only eight hours, the police had received enough information to identify the owner. Another person retrieved their stolen property via the Redwood City Police Department’s Nixle account. Police in Richmond, VA, and Pottstown, PA, have successfully made use of Pinterest boards, too.
The U.S. isn’t the only country using social media against crime. The Australian Federal Police collaborated with YouTube for the Missing Person Pre-Roll Project. Before you can play a YouTube video, you see a “pre-roll,” typically an ad. With the Missing Person Pre-Roll Project, however, you would see the description of a missing person in the pre-roll and are asked if you have seen them. Each pre-roll targeted an area in which a missing person was last seen. The campaign reached 1.2 million people in five days and 238 people clicked “Yes, I have,” helping to solve cold cases. The initiative also won an activism award at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive.
Using social media as a crime-fighting tool doesn’t only help with catching criminals, it also engages the communities and humanizes police officers. While most agencies are still skeptical when it comes to social media, the success of those who fully embrace these platforms should speak for itself.
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