Social media is typically used for recreation and entertainment. The medium has also become a powerful tool for criminal justice professionals. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are fully interactive channels of communication — and they are providing new ways of finding facts. Criminal justice and social media are joining forces as investigators can track criminal behavior and bring fugitives to justice.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, up to 96.4 percent of law enforcement agencies in one survey reported using social media in some capacity. It’s all a part of law enforcement’s ever-evolving efforts to protect the public.
Citizens have aided in these efforts by reporting info on criminal confessions and sightings through these networks. After all, the vast majority of Americans are active on social networks to some degree, including criminals.
Criminals have even exposed their own guilt on social media. Some have posted boastful videos of criminal mischief on YouTube. Others have tweeted self-incriminating remarks.
Social Media and Criminal Justice
The role of social media in criminal justice is growing. This trend has led to increased demand for officers who know how to use social media. Some officers have their own knowledge of social networks, while others are studying up on each platform to add new skills to their crime-fighting arsenals.
Judging by current patterns, social media could eventually become one of the primary tools of crime-solving. How is social media used in criminal justice? Law enforcement is using it in a variety of ways.
The Urban Institute and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) surveyed 539 law enforcement agencies in a 2016 study. According to their research, more than half of the surveyed agencies reported that they have specifically contacted social media companies for evidence in investigations. Specifically, 76 percent of agencies use social media to solicit tips on crimes and 70 percent use it to gather intelligence for investigations.
An Online Game of Cat and Mouse
While criminals sometimes play right into the law’s hands on Facebook and Twitter, criminal justice professionals have generally taken the lead in identifying suspects on social networks. Throughout their searches on these networks, investigators have managed to find missing people, identify criminal suspects, get tips on criminal activity, and track organized crime.
Investigators get no special privileges when it comes to obtaining info about users on social networks. The networks — which all have pre-existing privacy policies — will not hand over info without a warrant or subpoena.
Many social media users do not understand they can’t permanently delete their activity on social media. Networks can, in fact, retrieve deleted info and provide it as evidence in a criminal investigation.
According to Facebook’s Government Requests for User Data, the social media platform saw more than 50,000 total requests in the U.S. from January 2019 to June 2019 — more requests in six months than ever before and up from 42,466 the year prior. These requests involved 82,461 user accounts. About 3,000 of these requests were emergency requests, while more than 47,000 were requested through a legal process, the majority obtained through a search warrant. Out of all of the requests, 88 percent had some data produced.
It often takes more than a mere photo, tweet, or blog entry to solve a case. When investigators manage to subpoena an account holder’s info, they’re still obligated to verify whether the name on the account belongs to the actual suspect who posted said info. Additionally, they’d need to make sure the posts are authentic and not merely pranks.
Why Social Media Plays an Important Role in Law Enforcement
Police have been looking for evidence of gang-related activity on social media. On sites such as Facebook, suspects have been posting photos of themselves brandishing firearms and gesturing gang signs. Authorities have made open calls to law-abiding citizens across social media platforms for help in tracking criminal users.
In Aiken, South Carolina, the County Sheriff’s office and the Department of Public Safety are both active on Facebook and Twitter. They are using social media platforms in a variety of ways — from lead gathering and outreach to crime solving and prevention. With over 4,500 likes on their respective Facebook pages, both departments are able to share and receive info on breaking cases with followers, who, in turn, spread the news.
Many police departments in large cities around the country are also turning to social media. In Dallas, Texas, the Dallas Police Department boasts 352,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 215,000 Facebook likes. Even in a city home to more than 1.3 million people, social media makes it possible for people in law enforcement to interact with the public.
This stands in marked contrast to before when law officers had to turn to newspapers, radio, and television to announce breaking stories and gain new leads. At the same time, social media platforms make it easier for criminal justice departments to share info with the standard news outlets.
In addition to sharing info and tracking illegal activities, social media can also improve the public perception of law enforcement. Platforms such as Facebook allow police departments to show off a more personable side, such as officers helping out at community events.
The 2016 Urban Institute and IACP study also revealed the top three reasons police agencies use social media include:
- Reaching out to the public about safety concerns (91 percent)
- Engaging citizens/community outreach (89 percent)
- Reputation management/public relations and notifying the public about non-criminal issues, like traffic (86 percent)
Guilty Users Give Themselves Away
For those in law enforcement, one of the most clear-cut advantages of social media is how criminals use the platforms. Many are rather candid about their exploits when sharing info online. Some will go so far as to brag in detail about illegal activities, such as burglary, theft, vandalism, and other more brutal crimes.
Criminals assume that info won’t leak outside their inner circle if their accounts are set to private. Investigators, however, can easily produce warrants to obtain such info. This is often the case in crimes that unravel due to online indiscretions.
For example, police used Facebook to bring the killer of 31-year-old Suffolk, Virginia, woman Katrina Jones to justice in 2012. On a page titled “Catch Katrina’s Killer,” users submitted tips that led to the capture of Larry Nicholas O’Neal. He ultimately pled guilty to the strangling and is now serving a 35-year sentence.
Another example is the case surrounding the 2009 death of Virginia Beach, Virginia, toddler Lakeria Calahan. A private exchange on Facebook turned out to be a smoking gun for investigators. Two years had passed since the 11-month-old girl’s uncle had pled guilty to child neglect and been sentenced, and the case seemed all but closed.
Then, from out of the blue, Child Protective Services were handed messages sent via Facebook. Julie Calahan, the girl’s mother, had sent them to a friend.
In these messages, the 23-year-old confessed that she had inflicted injuries on her daughter that ultimately led to the girl’s death later the same day. These messages were forwarded to a detective in Virginia Beach and the case was reopened. The mother was tried, found guilty, and ultimately sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Social Media — Evidence Alone or Means for Finding Supporting Facts?
The Calahan case exemplifies a growing trend in which private, incriminating Facebook and Twitter exchanges leak straight into the hands of the law. Virginia Beach attorneys have even said that most of today’s cases use evidence gathered from social platforms.
Investigators generally use this info to track down other more traditional forms of evidence. Examples like the Calahan case — in which prosecutors primarily relied on evidence from social media — are still a rarity in the criminal justice system.
Nonetheless, social media content has directly resulted in a slew of convictions for the worst of all crimes. In 2009, a young Portsmouth murder defendant was convicted and sentenced to 25 years after jurors were shown a video he had posted to his YouTube account. In it, he rapped about murderous violence and grieving mothers. Prosecutors used this as evidence that the defendant had openly bragged about killing his victim.
In 2010, evidence gathered from social media led to a new precedent in criminal justice. It all stemmed from the case of a 25-year-old Virginia Beach man. He was convicted of threatening his girlfriend’s life in lyrics posted to his MySpace page. He appealed his conviction, but it was ultimately upheld in the state Court of Appeals. The Court ruled that threats via social media can be prosecuted under a 1998 law that criminalizes threats in electronic form.