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Law Enforcement and Social Media: Fighting Crime, One Tweet at a Time

by Jane Susskind, published

In an age ruled by technology, the majority of interactions now happen online. From the endless hours spent online, to our reliance on smartphones, to a need to stay connected, we have transformed into a society existing largely online. Some researchers even argue that Facebook and Twitter are more addictive than tobacco and alcohol.

With the majority of America viewing reality through the digital lens, how can we transform our affinity for all things Apple into a force to do good? Empirically, social media has been successful in fighting crime. Tweet it: Tweet

Aiding in Criminal Investigations

Criminals live online, just like us. By monitoring criminal activity on social networks, law enforcement officers gain insight into the patterns of criminals essential in the investigative process.

At a law enforcement conference in northern California earlier this month, SMILE founder Lauri Stevens told officers:

"You have to take part in it; people are talking about you, people are using social media to commit crimes, it's just, it's absolutely ignorant if you're a law enforcement agency these days to not use social media." Tweet quote: Tweet

With communication relying heavily on tweets and likes, clues from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social networks can be instrumental in the criminal investigation process. Our willingness to share content with friends, interact, and engage using social media makes it the ideal place to monitor and listen to a community as a whole.

"In Redwood City, we found a missing person in 13 minutes by a Twitter hit and a photo that we put out to the public," Redwood City Police Lt. Rhonda Leipelt said. "It changes our tactics, it changes our policing and it's changing how the public perceives us as well." Tweet quote: Tweet

Police officers no longer rely solely on the local news to spread "wanted" posters, but can now turn to the public for leads and information on prominent cases in the area.

Social Media's Preventative Nature 

Real-time responses via Facebook and Twitter represent a new wave in policing. Teaching officers how to become effective in monitoring and using social media websites could be instrumental in creating awareness of criminal activity, leading citizens out of harm's way before a crime is committed. Share the news: Tweet

Providing public safety information on a daily basis, the Omaha Police Department is part of the 25 percent of police departments embracing social media campaigns in their fight against crime. Tweet stat: Tweet

Lt. Darci Tierney, who oversees the department's social media, explains that if we trust them to carry a gun, we should trust them to address the public. All tweeting officers, however, must undergo training and abide by the social media policy against posting compromising information on the social media accounts.

The Seattle Police Department, with over 27,000 followers, uses Twitter to post information about suspects to increase awareness.

The Twitter account is monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, requiring police officers trained in social media management to respond to user questions and comments in real-time. While integrating social media education into the initial training of law enforcements officers might incur an initial cost, the long term benefits of having an actively social police department are empirically supported.

Reducing the Cost of Law Enforcement 

In Washington, lawmakers are faced with the unimaginable task of reducing the 16 trillion dollar debt. With our elected officials struggling to come to a consensus on a balanced budget, we as Americans contemplate what will stay and what will go.

With law enforcements already lacking necessary resources, social media could help to alleviate the financial stress inhibiting law enforcement officers from fulfilling their duty.

Conferences like the above mentioned can be an effective way to educate police officers on how to best use social media in preventing and tracking crime. Focusing on best practices and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tactics, participants shared their experiences with social media with others, fostering an environment of shared learning and innovation at a relatively low cost.

This is a game-changing resource in the fight against crime, and if properly used, has the potential to significantly reduce the cost of state, local, and federal law enforcement. Tweet it: Tweet

The Online Threat 

The novelty of using social media to fight crime, however, comes with potential dangers. Since the adoption of social media into our mode of communication, there has been an influx of cases involving online threats, harassment, and identity theft demanding time and resources from the police and law enforcement officers.

In the U.K, "crimes linked to the use of Facebook and Twitter have increased by 780% in four years, resulting in about 650 people being charged last year," reports the Guardian. Tweet stat: Tweet

This wave of online criminal activity has affected efforts by police enforcement globally, leading some to even suggest a new department of law enforcement designed specifically for online criminals.

Despite the potential for abuse, however, social media provides law enforcement officers a number of invaluable tools in the increasingly dangerous world. If effectively utilized, the power of social media can be successfully used in the fight against crime.

Photo Credit: Taylor Jones, Palm Beach Post

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