Twitter's potential as a crime-fighting and investigative tool for police is still largely unexploited by U.S. law enforcement, two experts said yesterday.
In the seven years since Twitter was founded, many police departments have embraced it as a public relations tool, but it's no longer good enough to have just one social media expert on staff, Lauri Stevens of LAwS Communications, said during a law enforcement webinar.
The event, “Social Media for Law Enforcement: From Implementation to Investigation,” was organized by private contracting firm BrightPlanet to give police personnel a sense of how to use Twitter and Facebook as a crime prevention tool.
“You don’t want to treat [being on Twitter] as a checkbox, and that’s what I see a lot of law enforcement agencies doing,” Stevens said.
Twitter's 500 million users feed constantly evolving streams of information onto the web, describing everything from neighborhood events to their own social gatherings.
While many U.S. police departments have created social media officers, most agencies just use Twitter and Facebook as an extension of the communications department, Stevens said.
“If you haven’t realized that’s passé, you’re going to,” added Stevens, who provides media advice to law enforcement departments around the country.
She pointed to several non-U.S. police departments that pursue strategies which leverage their social media connections to use citizens as crimereporting “eyes and ears.”
For example, Australia's New South Wales Police Force (NSWPF) patterned its Facebook strategy after its own neighborhood watch program. The NSWPF Facebook network includes over 100 pages for individual commands and 170 neighborhood watch groups.
Community members “are encouraged to post information about events and concerns in their area, which helps police develop strategies,” Stevens said.
Editor's Note: For more examples of unique law enforcement social media strategies around the globe, see “Crime-Fighting, Twitter and the Boston Bombing,” a TCR column by Alyce McGovern, a Senior Lecturer in at the University of New South Wales, by clicking HERE.
Other departments have officers who build social media relationships with civilians in their patrol areas.
Stevens noted that the Toronto Police Service — which she advises — has over 300 officers trained to use social media for policing, with the goal of building relationships with citizens on a hyper-local level.
But those who would help police stop crime are not the only ones communicating on Twitter and Facebook; plenty of criminals are mixed in with the Tweeting crowd, too.
The problem police can run up against is figuring how to sort through the millions of Tweets sent on a daily basis.
“The sheer volume of tweets is far too much for Twitter's (built-in) search,” said Al Meger, a Deep Web investigator with the private contracting firm BrightPlanet. The phrase “Deep Web” refers to information and data on the Internet that is not indexed by Google and other major search engines.
Meger explained that police can use the firm's Bluejay tool to monitor tweets within predefined geographic areas.
Police using the program can specify keywords, locations and users they want to monitor. They then get real-time feeds of information about what their targets are saying, and where.
Massive data sheets created from searches for terms like “meth” and “kush” can be downloaded and analyzed for investigations, but it takes an officer with more than just social media communications skills to glean relevant information.
From this data, police can identify the exact locations of suspected criminals — based on where they're tweeting from, and identify tip-offs for what they're planning next.
Graham Kates is Deputy Managing Editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be found on Twitter @GrahamKates.