Law Enforcement Takes on Social Media

Social Network Law Enforcement

Law enforcement’s newest partner is a bit talkative, but promises new and efficient methods in communication and investigation.

More agencies are utilizing social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, to broadcast information to subscribers and investigate suspicious activity by delving into social profiles. POLICE Magazine’s technology blog captured this budding partnership with an illustrated infographic on the ways police departments are utilizing popular social networking service Twitter.  Since the first police department Twitter account was created in 2007, close to 3 million users now follow various department accounts and receive updates on anything from criminal activity to weather alerts.

In addition to connecting with followers, law enforcement agencies utilize sites like Facebook as a tool for criminal investigations, combing for persons of interest and identifying criminal activity. A 2012 infographic produced by LexusNexus highlights percentages of investigative activities conducted through sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, and gives us a glimpse of the growing relationship between criminal investigations and social media. As the infographic notes, 2/3rds of the polled participants believe investigation through these websites helps accelerate crime-solving.  Law Enforcement professionals cited the inability to access social media during work and lack of user knowledge as the main reasons these websites aren’t used more often in investigations, rather than the belief that the information is useless.

When patrolling online, law enforcement officials can access incriminating photos, status updates and other information that individuals make public on their profiles. Accessing private information requires more elaborate networking through friends and relatives to see what a suspect might share with them, according to a CNN article on social media and crime-fighting. Illegal activity can also be surprisingly visible on popular social mobile applications like Instagram, where drug dealers have been known to utilize specific hashtags to communicate with potential buyers.

For law enforcement agencies looking to jump in on online investigative action, specialized resources such as websites and conferences aim to help introduce users to effective strategies. The SMILE Conference – Social Media the Internet and Law Enforcement, held most recently this September in Omaha, NE– proposes to engage and inform professionals with social media applications, from crime prevention to connecting with locals. Websites like ConnectedCops feature articles on current and upcoming media sites and apps, composed by a panel of writers in the law enforcement profession.

As agencies continue to develop social networking as a strategic tool, we’ll see new challenges – and more than a few achievements – in the way law enforcement communicates and investigates online.