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Social Media is Another Tool in the Toolbox for Police Departments

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By Timothy Hardiman

Like most other organizations, police agencies are exploring the various uses, opportunities and dangers associated with social media. One aspect of social media that is of interest to law enforcement is using it as a tool while conducting investigations or developing intelligence. Criminals will post a surprising amount of useful and even incriminating information online. That information is there and it’s up to law enforcement to know how to find it.

An NYPD officer in Brooklyn recently did just that as described in this New York Daily News article. He “friended” some members of a suspected burglary crew and monitored status updates waiting for references to their heists. Police were able to gather enough information from the “walls” of these individuals and their friends that they were able to immediately arrest these individuals after a crime was committed.

Another social networking tool that can provide intelligence information is Twitter. While most people are familiar with the 140-character news updates that members send out, the site also has a robust search capability. Departments are using this search capability to gather general information on an ongoing basis and to find information about specific incidents. For example, a department could maintain an open search on schools in their jurisdictions.

In order to find the most pertinent Tweets, use Twitter’s Advance Search page. This page has fields for words to include, exclude and it can also limit results to Tweets sent within a set distance of a specified location. The last feature is useful if a municipality has a common name. It should be noted that the results page refreshes itself and provides a notification when new Tweets match the search criteria.

Investigators also have the ability to “follow” specific people or organizations that have Twitter accounts. Investigators can set up either overt or covert accounts to accomplish this. While some tech-savvy subjects may not “accept” the investigator’s follow request, like most people, crooks can be surprisingly lax with their security settings. Investigators can keep track of individual accounts by entering the subject’s Twitter handle, preceded by a “@” in the search box ex: @subject. This will return results not only of that individual’s Tweets, but any time that person is mentioned.

When a crime occurs police can enter the pertinent search term: “robbed”, “shot”, “murder”, etc. and specify the location and read Tweets that mention the incident being investigated. This information can be used to locate witnesses. Since Twitter also has a photo publishing capability, investigators may find photos of witnesses or perpetrators.

The website HootSuite provides a “social media dashboard” that allows departments to monitor numerous searches and feeds on a single screen. On this screen, an agency can monitor various social networking sites. In addition to Twitter, Hootsuite can watch Facebook, LinkedIn, Foursquare, MySpace and WordPress. Hootsuite also offers mobile apps for Androids and iPhones.

Police investigators can now gather intelligence, find evidence and track perpetrators using free web applications and information that is posted by perpetrators or the general public. The resources are there, now it’s just a matter of learning how to use them.

~ Timothy Hardiman is a 23-year veteran of the NYPD. He recently retired as an Inspector serving as the Commanding Officer of the 47th Precinct in the Bronx. Mr. Hardiman has extensive investigative experience having served as the Commanding Officer of the 71 St. Detective Squad in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Special Victims Squad.Hardiman has been an Adjunct Faculty member of American Military University (AMU) since 2004. His courses include: Stress Management for Law Enforcement, Police and Society, Patrol Procedures and Evidence and Procedure, Criminal Justice Administration, and Corrections and Parole. 

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