Law and Order: Social Media Unit

The San Francisco Police Department may have an “Instagram officer,” but other forces are trolling social media for criminal activity too

City Police Car
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Earlier this month, the public learned that the San Francisco Police Department has a dedicated “Instagram officer” who patrols the popular photo share site in search of illegal activities. The officer, Eduard Ochoa, had nabbed a minor for illegal firearm possession after the defendant posted pictures of himself carrying a gun on his Instagram page, under the username “40glock.” Ochoa used the pictures as grounds to search 40glock’s house, leading to his conviction. Ochoa’s (unofficial) job title as Instagram officer came to light as part of the court filings.

The story was reported by a number of media outlets in a tone of surprise—the police use Instagram?! But those who follow trends in criminal justice know that San Francisco is hardly unique.  

Police use of the internet and social media has been growing rapidly in the past several years, and using Instagram to catch criminal activity is only the tip of the iceberg. According to a 2013 survey from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, nearly 96 percent of the 500 law enforcement agencies in America surveyed use social media in some capacity. The most commonly used social media sites are Facebook (92.1 percent), Twitter (64.8 percent) and YouTube (42.9 percent). Some 80 percent say social media has helped them solve crimes.

There are probably many officers like Ochoa, though police departments generally don’t advertise that fact, says Lori Brainard, a professor of public policy and public administration at George Washington University, who studies police use of social media. “I think it’s probably common among very large police departments,” she says.

Even departments without dedicated social media officers commonly use Facebook or YouTube to seek the public’s help in identifying or apprehending suspects. A decade or two ago, police might have sent security camera footage of suspected bank robbers or muggers to the local news to ask viewers for tips. Now they’re likely to also post the footage on YouTube or their department’s Facebook page.

Police also monitor social media sites in search of postings about illegal activities. Some law-breakers, especially young ones, seem to forget social media is public or semi-public. They post pictures of drug use on Facebook or pose for selfies wearing stolen clothes or jewelry. A young woman in Texas robbed a bank, then posted a YouTube video bragging about the experience. She was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison. A searched-for robbery suspect checked in to a strip club on Facebook, leading officers straight to his location.

Community members can purposely or inadvertently draw police by using hashtags in social media posts. Police might, for example, follow the hashtag #StateBasketballRules after a local college basketball game. If a picture of an illegal celebratory street bonfire shows up with the hashtag, police could go to the location and arrest the revelers. Police have searched hashtags like #420 or #weedstagram to nab drug users. Citizens also sometimes tweet pictures of vandalism or other minor crimes at police departments as a way of reporting problems without calling 911.

While Facebook and Instagram are common places to search for criminal activity and information about suspects, an increasing number of police departments are also using Pinterest, that bastion of cookie recipes and baby shower decoration ideas. In the past year or so, a number of departments have created Pinterest pages to use as virtual lost-and-founds. A peek at the Gloucester Township, New Jersey’s recovered property board shows several pairs of earrings and glasses, two sets of car keys and a cell phone. The unclaimed property board from the Dover, Delaware PD is heavy on purses and wallets. Mountain View, California’s lost and found board has several dozen bikes (appropriate for a city designed to be a “bicycle friendly community”). Dallas breaks its board into subcategories: bicycles, jewelry, electronics, sporting goods, equipment/hardware and miscellaneous.

Other departments use Pinterest as a virtual “wanted” poster. The unsolved cases board of State College, Pennsylvania includes pictures of suspected law-breakers: several Walmart thieves, a couple of young women who used a karaoke room without paying and "two college aged white males along with two college aged white females" who stole a floor sign from a Taco Bell.

Social media can also help police reach out to non-English-speaking residents. In 2013, the police department of Alhambra, California, where more than half the residents are of Chinese descent, became the first PD in the country to start a Weibo, or “Chinese Twitter,” page. Many of the posts are merely translations of the PD’s Facebook posts, while some are specifically directed at the Chinese community, giving information or looking for help solving crimes. Earlier this year, the police department of Aurora, Colorado, where some 28 percent of residents are Hispanic, created a Spanish-language Twitter account.

But police attempts to use social media to gather community support can easily backfire, especially in the current atmosphere of anger about police killings of unarmed black citizens. Last year, the NYPD asked people to tweet photos of themselves with officers using the hashtag #myNYPD. While some people posted what the department had been hoping for—shots of themselves smiling with officers at picnics or parades—many used the hashtag to tweet pictures of police brutality.

Unfortunately, Brainard says, it’s incredibly difficult for police departments to use social media to both catch suspects and build a sense of community. Residents who feel they’re being watched on social media are less likely to want to share information with the police. The feeling of being spied on engenders mistrust. “It has a very chilling effect on people’s inclination to engage with the police on social media,” she says.

Posting information about suspects online can be problematic too, Brainard says. People are innocent until proven guilty. But when a video of you supposedly committing a crime gets online, it will follow you forever, even if you’re found not guilty.

“In the old days, if you slapped someone’s 'wanted' poster in the newspaper [and] wanted to find that years later, you’d have to look through microfilm at the library,” Brainard says. “[The internet] has reputation-damaging potential in a way old-fashioned media didn’t.” 

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