Last year a Martha’s Vineyard visitor burglarized a house in Edgartown. While exiting the house, he left faint prints from stolen boots in the fresh paint on the porch. Later, the man posted pictures of the boots, his favorites, on his Facebook page. The photo of the boots led Edgartown police to the main suspect in the house break.
It is difficult to say if this crime would have been solved by a conventional police investigation. But Island police departments are increasing their use of social media and turning to web sites, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other online social networks to stay in touch with their communities, investigate crimes, and make information available quickly, and investigate suspects that post incriminating information.
For veteran police officers schooled in investigative techniques that depend on shoe leather and persistence, the reach of social media is revealing.
“It’s an incredibly useful tool these days,” Edgartown police Det. Sgt. Chris Dolby told The Times. “It helps us stay in touch with our community in ways that up until now didn’t exist, especially at that speed. It’s pretty unbelievable.”
Investigating at the speed of Facebook
The first step in many police investigations is to narrow the list of possible suspects. Prior to the popularity of social media, that could be a tedious process that began with verifying the whereabouts of possible suspects at the time of the crime, interviewing witnesses, and gathering information from a variety of sources. Now, detectives often turn first to social media networks to confirm investigative leads.
“People put a lot of personal information on Facebook,” Detective Sergeant Dolby said. “I’ve had numerous cases where it helps you connect the dots. Current pictures, pictures of people hanging out together. At certain points in an investigation, that’s really important stuff.”
In the case of the burglar who stumbled by posting his footwear on a Facebook page, the investigation began with conventional gathering of information. Once police developed a suspect, Detective Sergeant Dolby searched for his Facebook page, where he had posted a message and a picture raving about the comfort of his new work boots. The boot’s tread design was an exact match to boot prints taken from the scene of the crime. When confronted with that fact, the suspect admitted his crime.
Getting the word out
On Sept. 9, Edgartown police received a call from a resident who reported a stolen pickup truck.
“We checked all the normal spots, where we’ve had luck finding stolen vehicles,” Detective Sergeant Dolby said. “But there’s a lot of area.”
Edgartown police issued an alert to all the other Island departments. Depending on staffing at the time of day or night, that’s about 12 to 30 pairs of well-trained eyes on the lookout.
Social media can multiply that effect exponentially. The following day, Detective Sergeant Dolby posted a picture showing the same model and color truck, and an example of the truck’s specialty license plate, on the department’s Facebook page. The original post was shared 19 times to other Facebook pages, increasing the reach of the information far beyond the Edgartown Police department page. One of the places it was shared was a Facebook group called “Islanders Talk,” which has more than 2,300 members. One of the members recognized the truck immediately.
“I threw it up on Facebook, a woman saw it, and we recovered the truck in about an hour,” Detective Sergeant Dolby said.
Tisbury police utilize Twitter, and increase their reach by automatically posting each Twitter message on a Facebook page. In August, they distributed surveillance photos of someone they suspect shoplifted some sunglasses from the Sunglass Haven store on Main Street. The pictures show four clear views of the suspect, all from different angles.
Tisbury police chief Dan Hanavan said his department intends to increase its use of social media.
“You reach more people,” Chief Hanavan said. “It’s convenient for people, and they can find the information they need.”
Oak Bluffs police Det. Jeff LaBell, who handles much of the social media responsibilities for his department, said the multiplying effect is sometimes astounding.
“Sometimes we’ll put at the bottom of a message ‘please repost,’” he said. “People just keep reposting. We’ve had 15,000, 20,000 hits on some things. If we’re trying to identify someone, and we have a photo we can put on there, sometimes within a few minutes we’ll get a call.”
Social community policing
Local police departments are also using social media in the same way many users do: staying in touch with their community. In addition to reposted newspaper stories of arrests, announcements of newly hired police officers, and alerts about a phone scam are pictures of the Oak Bluffs police participating in a Little League parade, a group picture of Oak Bluffs police officers from 1992, and tips on safe winter driving posted on the eve of an impending blizzard.
“It starts to break down the barriers between police and community,” Detective LaBell said.
West Tisbury’s Facebook page includes photos of police officers at the fair, and a video of Chief Dan Rossi leading his department in an ALS ice bucket challenge.
“You’re letting the community know what their police department is doing,” Chief Rossi said. “You’re humanizing the police department.”
By a wide margin, the most common way police use social media is in criminal investigations, according to a 2013 survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The survey found 86 percent of police departments use social media to solve crimes.
More than 73 percent of the survey participants say they use social media to notify the public about crime problems.
The third most-cited use in the survey was community outreach and citizen engagement, at 70 percent.
Of the departments that responded to the survey, 73 percent said social media has improved their relationship with the communities they police.
The association warns, however, that police departments need a clearly articulated social media policy that follows the same principles of law that govern any other conduct.
“Actions must be lawful and personnel must have a defined objective and a valid law enforcement purpose for gathering, maintaining,
or sharing personally identifiable information,” the association wrote in its guidelines and recommendations for law enforcement agencies. “In addition, any law enforcement action involving undercover activity (including developing an undercover profile on a social media site) should address supervisory approval, required documentation of activity, periodic reviews of activity, and the audit of undercover processes and behavior. Law enforcement agencies should also not collect or maintain the political, religious, or social views, associations, or activities of any individual or group, association, corporation, business, partnership, or organization unless there is a legitimate public safety purpose.”
There is widespread confusion about privacy controls on social media platforms, and many complaints about how difficult it is to keep information within a circle of friends. But even if users are careful about privacy controls, police may have access to personal information through a court order, subpoena, or search warrant.
Snapchat, the instant messaging service wildly popular with teenagers, allows users to send text, picture, or video messages that are deleted soon after they are read by the intended recipient. Except for unread messages, which are stored for 30 days, Snapchat says, it does not keep the messages on its computers. But with proper authorization from a court, police can get plenty of information. With that authorization, Snapchat is required by law to turn over personal information such as email address, phone number, and a list of the past 200 messages sent over the service, similar to a phone log.
But many times, criminals make all that court paperwork unnecessary, and simply post incriminating information that anyone can find with a simple search.