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Social Media: A Digital Weapon for Law Enforcement

Author: Tom Sizer, LexisNexis Risk Solutions

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2014-01-27
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The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently released its annual National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) and, for the second year in a row, violent and property crime rates across the country were on the rise – up 15 and 12 percent respectively.[1]  The NCVS follows on the heels of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment – Emerging Trends report that pointed to gangs as a major factor for violent crime, indicating that they are “responsible for an average of 48 percent of violent crime in most jurisdictions and up to 90 percent in several others.”[2]  These numbers are disconcerting, and have the potential to only get worse.  Law enforcement officers must be prepared and proactive.

What if law enforcement had the ability to identify and potentially prevent crime before it happened?  What if they were able to get out in front of when and where criminal activity would occur, and deploy resources accordingly?  A USA Today article covering the release of the NCVS quotes criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University in regards to the fact that, although up over the past two years, violent crime is still well below the numbers two decades ago.  Mr. Fox notes, “Going back 20 years or more, policing was done blindly.  Now, due to technology, police can be much more proactive in dealing with crime problems before they get out of hand."[3]

That is certainly the case with the emergence of social media and its use by law enforcement.  In fact, according to a LexisNexis survey of over 1,200 active law enforcement officers, four out of five utilize social media sites to help with investigations.  And that number is slated to increase, with 83 percent of current users noting they anticipate using social media more, while 74 percent of non-users intend to jump on board.  The research also found that identifying people and locations; discovering criminal activity and locations; and gathering evidence are the top activities for social media.

We have all come to know that social media is a critical tool for criminal investigation, but social media also serves as a proactive asset for law enforcement.  Public-facing social media data can be combined with public records and integrated into the intelligence analysis to assist with crime anticipation, prediction and disruption.  Analysts can gather intelligence on where criminals are likely located, who they’ve talked to and their past activities using tools that mine data from social media platforms.  This information helps investigators determine if criminal behavior is likely. 

By combining social media with traditional law enforcement tactical information, such as police records, known associate details or crime trend data, investigators can determine when and where criminal behavior is likely to occur.  With law enforcement resources tighter than ever, this capability enables officers to target areas or events where criminal activity is anticipated, providing a strategic advantage and the ability to deploy an increased presence to deter crime. 

The LexisNexis study also produced anecdotal use cases that will help illustrate the capability of social media.  One law enforcement officer noted that his agency was able to identify information on a “terroristic threat involving students in a local high school.  Further investigation (utilizing Facebook) revealed the threats were credible and we conducted follow-up investigations which revealed a student intent on harming others.  The student was in the process of attempting to acquire weapons.  It’s my belief we avoided a ‘Columbine’ type scenario.”

Another powerful example – which must be kept general for obvious reasons – involved an undercover officer that had infiltrated a notoriously violent gang.  By leveraging social media and picking up on gang member “chatter,” investigators were alerted to the fact that the undercover officer had been “outed” and that his life was in danger.  The department was able to remove the undercover officer from the assignment immediately without harm.

When dealing with the 21st century criminal, law enforcement needs to underscore the importance of 21st century police tactics.  The fight against crime is shifting from a street corner approach to online communities and networks where illegal activities are planned, organized and perpetrated.  Look no further than the shutdown of the Silk Road cyber underworld last fall to understand the breadth of the digital crime scene.  An online platform for the sale of illegal drugs, forged documents, hackers, hit men and more, Silk Road had a reported $1.2 billion in sales and nearly a million customers.  This type of online operation would have been unthinkable just a decade ago, but is now reality, and requires law enforcement to make a significant shift in tactical focus.

Social media adds a dimension to the capabilities of law enforcement by enhancing situational awareness.  It provides another weapon in the proverbial holster; one with a digital scope to take aim at crime before it occurs.

For more information on how social media is changing the investigation process, read this whitepaper

Tom Sizer is Senior Director Market Planning, Law Enforcement, LexisNexis Risk Solutions.  Tom can be reached by email here.

[1] “Criminal Victimization, 2012.” Bureau of Justice Statistics. October 24, 2013

[2] “2011 National Gang Threat Assessment – Emerging Trends.” Federal Bureau of Investigation.  October 2011

[3] Violent crime rises for second consecutive year.” USA Today. October 24, 2013



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