criminal law reform

Law Enforcement Agencies Make Wide Use of Social Media

With nearly everyone in the known universe using social media, it should be no surprise law enforcement agencies are too. You may still be able to find flyspecked most-wanted notices tacked onto a wall in a post office or federal building, but many police agencies have updated for the digital age.

Besides hunting for a suspect or fugitive by interviewing acquaintances or family members or checking phone records, these days, many North American police departments gather tips from the public or find suspects through Twitter, Facebook and other popular websites. It’s not uncommon to see security camera video captures posted on a police blog, with an appeal to the public for help identifying or locating a suspect.

Ever hear of #WarrantWednesdays? It’s a regular feature many U.S. and Canadian law enforcement agencies have added to their social media pages, posting warrants for local suspects or fugitives and inviting information from the public. The New York State Police started doing that in 2013, and an agency spokeswoman praises the program, not only for directly leading to 15 of 29 arrests it made last year due to social media tips, but also for drawing greater attention to its Facebook and Twitter activity.

In Hamilton, Ohio, the county sheriff’s office maintains a Top 15 Most Wanted section on its website and posts a “Warrant of the Week” on its Facebook page seeking anonymous tips via phone or web. The sheriff says he was delighted when the first response to a March 2 post came from the suspect being sought on a variety of charges.

In his own defense, the 21-year-old tweeted of his accusers that “half of them don’t even know me.” The sheriff’s office replied “it’d be great” if he could stop by the office to talk things over, and the next day the suspect turned himself in. Soon, the sheriff issued a Twitter update that the man would temporarily be off Facebook, since the county jail lacked internet connections for inmates.

Sometimes social media helps law enforcers locate individuals they may have forgotten they were looking for. Take the case of a 22-year-old man in Mineral Springs, Texas who decided to liven up his Facebook page by bragging there he was still at liberty, despite 16 outstanding arrest warrants. That same day, someone forwarded this social media taunt to the local police department’s Facebook page; it piqued their interest, and they soon discovered the braggart’s whereabouts.

On the plus side for the scofflaw, he turned out to have only 14 outstanding warrants; on the negative side, he couldn’t pay $1,200 in accumulated fines or post bail, so he wound up serving more than seven weeks in the county jail.

Of course, police departments use social media programs for many other purposes: employee recruitment, notices of severe weather or other types of emergencies, news of charitable projects, and even pictures of cute animals (these tend to be police dogs and mounted police horses).

But if you’re concerned about actual or possible criminal charges, it might be a good idea to maintain the internet equivalent of radio silence – and to hope a police social media site doesn’t decide to try to make you a star.

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