When local law enforcement is able to engage residents in an exchange of information, crime-fighting is more effective. Increasingly, social media is becoming a valuable tool for police and citizens to work together. These networks present opportunities to gather and distribute information quickly. Many departments are not able, willing or sometimes allowed to leverage the benefits of this technology. The ones who do so successfully, however, provide a blueprint for peers to follow.

Social media is more than Facebook

According to the Pew Internet Research Center, Facebook remains the most widely adopted social network, used by more than 71 percent of online adults. In January, the company reported that more than 1.39 billion people are active on Facebook. From that nation-sized pool of members, police officers can gain valuable intelligence and solicit feedback that benefits their local communities.

As dominant as it has become, however, Facebook is not necessarily the best social media platform for law enforcement officials to investigate or connect with all demographics. Online networks like LinkedIn have significantly older membership than websites like Deviant Art or Reddit. Boasting 100 million active monthly users, Snapchat ranks third behind Facebook and Instagram as the most popular social media platform among Millennials.

Experimentation with #LESM leads to best practices. Click To Tweet

Age is an important demographic for crime prevention—about half of all crime is committed by young people under age 25. Although representing 6 percent of the U.S. population, teenagers account for 30 percent of criminal arrests, predominately “street crime” like theft, burglary and vandalism. Understanding and participating in the digital tools this group uses will allow officers to better anticipate and respond to crimes, as well as instill safe habits and decision-making skills in youth.

Experimentation by police leads to best practices

Although many departments have integrated digital tools into their investigations, few officers are formally trained in its use. A 2012 LexisNexis survey revealed that only 10 percent of respondents received formal training in online investigation and community engagement. Eight in ten officers now use social media, but only half off all departments have policies guiding that use in a professional context.

That doesn’t mean law enforcement professionals aren’t experimenting. Here is a look at some emerging best practices for the on-the-job use of popular social media channels:

Search images for illegal activity

As a former cybercrimes prosecutor explained to the Miami Herald, the culture of social media encourages people to share pictures and posts from their daily lives. Criminals who do so may provide police officers with evidence to lock them away. While some platforms require a warrant to disclose account information to police, officers can benefit from the explicit openness of their suspects by viewing any incriminating images they make public.

Seek help from many eyes

70 million photos are uploaded to Instagram each day. To monitor this volume effectively, police need assistance from software and the community of members already paying attention to that stream of information. This is equally true for monitoring other platforms and for soliciting comments on content the department shares. In Maryland, police post pictures of fugitives on Twitter using the hashtag #WantedWednesday. Citizens around the country respond with tips that are helping to get criminals off of the streets.

Go undercover online

When attempting to gather information about suspects, some officers create fake accounts and arm themselves with friend requests. According to CNN, the practice is legal, thanks to a decision by U.S. District Judge William Martini. The court ruled that because information on the social network platform was shared consensually, any facts obtained through that connection were permissible in court. In advance of the ruling, however, Facebook protested this practice as a violation of their terms of service, so it is still not clear what leeway an officer has to investigate crime in this manner. For this kind of policing, involve your department in strategic planning and always operate within well-defined boundaries.

Understand the functional limits

Since pictures and videos sent through Snapchat disappear as quickly as they’re taken, monitoring information is much more difficult for police officers. The ephemeral nature of the service may seem like an unlikely asset for law enforcement. However, officers who present the company with an official request may be able to access snaps that have been sent, but not opened. This is particularly helpful in instances where a suspect has sent an image to more than one person.

Send short bursts of information to followers

Some officers leverage Snapchat’s widespread adoption among youth to use it as a communication channel to inform and strengthen relationships with their constituents. Police in England, for example, routinely send pictures to their online network that feature short bursts of helpful information, such as the number to dial if you come into contact with drug crime. Young adults, particularly those who have recently moved to an area, will consume these snaps as part of their regular use of Snapchat.

Since most of the people in your community are already online, the benefit to publishing and maintaining social media pages is the ability to spread information to a large number of constituents at the click of a button. Encouraging people to share relevant information extends the department network and increases visibility of the message. Prompt reader engagement by asking questions—particularly those that value citizen expertise—and keep your pages updated to ensure your posts get the traction they need.

Department use of social media can produce positive results for police investigation and community relationships. Even without requiring training, by making a greater commitment toward integrating digital monitoring into routines, police departments can help officers develop new skills, increase awareness and share what works (and what doesn’t) with other law enforcement professionals.

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