Police turning to Facebook to fight crime

Published 8 March 2011

Local police departments across the United States have are beginning to use Facebook and Twitter to communicate with local residents and track down criminals and missing persons; departments have successfully apprehended suspects minutes after posting photos online; police have also received tips on the whereabouts of wanted criminals and Facebook has become a part of the investigative process; Facebook’s traditional functions of outreach and communication have helped departments keep residents informed and build trust; critics of police patrolling Facebook and Twitter for tips say that it is an invasion of privacy; police have been careful to only use publicly posted information that users choose to display

Facebook proves to assist police // Source: streetgangs.com

Local police departments across the United States are beginning to use Facebook to help fight crime.

Last month the Upper Allen Township police department followed the lead of nearby cities in Pennsylvania and started using various social-networking tools like Facebook and Twitter to not only communicate with local residents, but also track down criminals and missing persons. 

After a robbery occurred in Lower Paxton Township, Pennsylvania, the police posted a photo of the suspected robber online and within minutes the police were able to track him down. “Within 10 minutes, somebody had called and identified the guy,” said Detective Sergeant David Hodges.

Sergeant Hodges says that social networking sites have also been a great asset in tracking down wanted criminals.

“People have called me and said, ‘Hey, I just found this person on Facebook and he has an address that’s listed and he’s going to school in Colorado,’ ” he said.

Detective Ryan Parthemore, who is responsible for implementing the Upper Allen Township’s social marketing presence, explains that using Facebook and Twitter has assisted law enforcement efforts by expanding the pool of people that the police can turn to for tips.

As an example, Parthemore says that if a child goes missing, the police can post a photo online and alert residents to be on the lookout.

He also says that Facebook has become a great asset in criminal investigations because suspects or their known associates are constantly discussing their habits or posting their locations in tweets or Facebook updates.

“It’s one of the basic steps in an investigation now,” he said.

Investigators were able to capture a criminal who had robbed several cars after she had posted a photo of her holding a gun on her Facebook page. Police were then able to zoom in on the high-resolution photo and read the serial number on the gun, which corresponded to a weapon reported stolen from one of the cars.

Aside from helping to solve crimes, Facebook’s traditional functions of outreach and communication have helped departments keep residents informed.

Susquehanna Township police chief Rob Martin, who launched a department Facebook page last year, said, “Folks may have not caught it in the paper or watched it on the 6 o’clock news, but they check their Facebook.”

He says that these outreach efforts help to build trust among residents in a similar way that beat cops walking the streets and getting to know people does.

Upper Allen Township has developed a sophisticated online presence including a detailed police log with mug shots, safety tips and crime information updates, and publishes statistics about the town on things like alcohol-related crashes and frequencies of service calls.

Critics of police patrolling Facebook and Twitter for tips say that it is an invasion of privacy and goes too far.

Police departments around college campuses have come under fire for raiding parties they learned about on Facebook, and last year the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security drew criticism after it hired a firm to monitor activists on social-networking sites and send information to law enforcement officials.

In responding to these charges, Charles Palmer, the executive director of the Center for Advance Entertainment and Learning Techniques at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, says that all of this information has been publicly posted and police efforts are no more invasive than what private companies do to collect data for advertising or promotional purposes.

Police departments have noticed that individuals share a tremendous amount of private data over social-networking sites.

“I don’t know how much thought they give to it as to who will have access to this information, who will be able to see it,” Cornwall Police chief Bruce Harris said. “From our perspective, it’s been helpful.”

Last year his department arrested two teens after they posted photos on Facebook documenting them inside a home where they had broken in and stolen two televisions.

“Most of these suspects want to brag about themselves,” said state police spokesman Trooper Tom Pinkerton. “The best place to brag about themselves is on social-networking sites.”