Understanding how law enforcement uses social media

June 2, 2021

Madison Tucker

The news about social media

Since the early days of the media, it has been a fun family event to sit around the radio or the television to listen to the news events from the day. In recent years media has grown into social media and websites such as Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and Reddit have grown in popularity. These sites have been described as internet-based channels that allow users to exchange information and interact with the presented information (Bardus, et al., 2020). This shared information can be anything from information about a restaurant to sharing a photo or organizing an event. Not only for the general public, these social media sites are accessed by news stations and law enforcement.

News stations use social media sites for various reasons. Gone are the days of simply getting the news from a newspaper or the television. Current estimates suggest that 34% of adults in the U.S. get their news updates from online websites or social media (Geiger, 2019). Individuals have access to current news stories, while news stations keep track of current events by conducting online research. For example, often a breaking news story is first featured on Facebook, Twitter, or through a YouTube video where recordings of actual events may be available. Understandably, the media wants to cover hot topic stories, such as the Trayvon Martin and George Floyd cases; however, the media coverage of these stories had a major impact on law enforcement proceedings.

Connecting social media to law enforcement

Law enforcement has a long history of using media to alert the public to crimes that have been committed and to seeking the public’s help in solving crimes. In many cases, the media would pick up on the story through word of mouth and then attempt to get an interview with the law enforcement officer in charge of the case.

At first, law enforcement fought against the media, not believing that it could help solve their cases. However, the 1888 case of Jack the Ripper in London changed the interaction between law enforcement and the media (Gaines & Kappeler, 2015). The public wanted more stories about crime, and the media was happy to meet this demand. This led law enforcement to form relationships with different media outlets. From these early relationships, law enforcement learned that the media is a valuable tool for solving cases—and the relationship has progressed towards one of mutual benefit.

The social media toolkit used by law enforcement

During investigations, law enforcement officers may utilize various forms of social media including body cameras, surveillance systems, mapping technology, and forensic science (Lanier & Cooper, 2016). For this article, only the digital technology relating to computers and social media websites will be discussed.

One of the commonly used social media sites by law enforcement is Facebook

A 2011 report conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), found that 88.1% of the law enforcement agencies use a form of social media site to help with police investigations. One of the commonly used social media sites by law enforcement is Facebook. Facebook is a social media platform that allows users to share data about themselves, including photos and locations, and for users to chat with one another via media forums or groups (Spizman & Miller, 2013). Through this format, law enforcement officers can connect with the community they serve.

Community Oriented Policing, or COPS, was established between 1970 and 1980 to improve the relationship between law enforcement and the community following the turbulent racial riots of the 1960s (Gaines & Kappeler, 2015). Later in 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was established to improve law enforcement and community relations. This program resulted in an increase of roughly 100,000 law enforcement officers policing the community streets. This meant that more law enforcement officers could provide aid to the public, and were now more susceptible to ending up on social media platforms.

Exposure on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube is often used by law enforcement to promote positive images of the officers. For example the YouTube channel ‘Mike the Cop’ is based on an officer, Mike, who works with Humanize the Badge, an organization that depicts officers as ordinary people. The goal is to promote a positive image of law enforcement in the hopes of the community trusting these officers and not targeting the officers with hate. While being fun and entertaining, these videos also educate the public about different issues facing law enforcement.

Social media helping law enforcement

Social media can efficiently spread important information and raise awareness through a community, which is beneficial to both law enforcement and community organizations. The internet has a far greater reach than many county law enforcement agencies, who are often lacking in time and resources to search for potential suspects and witnesses. A report from 2012, found that 73% of law enforcement officers believed that social media helped solve cases faster. Two examples of how social media helps law enforcement solve cases are

a woman live-streamed herself, using the app Periscope, driving drunk. She was filmed going to different bars before getting into her car, stating “Let’s see if I get a DUI.” Upon seeing this on the social media app, concerned citizens called law enforcement, which led to the women being charged with a DUI.

Other methods used by law enforcement officers include sting operations. A sting operation is when an officer or group of officers create a fake account on social media to draw out different types of predators (Hay, 2005). One of the most common forms of sting operation involves child pornography and attempting to arrest pedophiles (Moore, et al., 2007). Both researchers and law enforcement officers had believed that pedophile numbers were decreasing, until it became apparent that these offenders had turned to social media sites to conduct illegal activities.

During these operations, law enforcement officers create different social media accounts to attract a specific group of offenders. These accounts post pictures of what the offender is generally looking for, and give the offender details to make contact with the fake account. Once an offender has shown interest in the fake account, the officers will act as the child to gather enough information for an arrest during an arranged meeting. (Moore, et al., 2007). These sting operations have been successful in many cases, but some courts argue this is entrapment and that officers encourage these behaviors (Hay, 2005; Moore, et al., 2007).

Negative effects of social media

The court case of United States v. Poehlman (2000) is used as reference to understand how the courts should proceed when entrapment is brought into question from an online format. During this case, officers were found to be leading the suspect, instead of the suspect leading the officers. The data from the electronic exchange between Poehlman and the officers, showed the officers asked Poehlman to commit acts with minors. This case and others like it, have been the impetus for the court system and law enforcement agencies to work on developing new policies relevant for these proceedings.

Sharing personal information with everyone except law enforcement

Further, law enforcement agencies are identifying the need to create policies on data collection from social media platforms. Much of what individuals post on social media is freely available for the public to view. The existing controversy surrounds whether law enforcement can use this information. One argument is that information obtained online may be in violation of the privacy and civil rights of individuals.

To help overcome these issues and ensure the rights of citizens are upheld, law enforcement agencies created policies regarding the use of social media data (Global Advisory Committee,2013). Without a uniform policy that covers every law enforcement agency, individual agencies have created policies based on the agency needs and understanding of privacy protection laws (Global Advisory Committee, 2013; U.S. Dept of Justice, 2013).

Even with policy changes, the media has showcased another negative attribute of law enforcement officers. Over the last few years news stations, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have shown images and videos of police brutality. In particular, the fatal shootings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and George Floyd fueled negative media attention towards law enforcement officers (De Choudhur, et al., 2016). In some cases, there was recorded footage of the incidents and in other reports, community members spoke to news reporters about what was witnessed. The negative press created towards law enforcement officers stays on social media pages for months and years. When a new incident occurs, past news reports and social media posts are brought to light again (Lawrence, 2000). This information refuels negative emotions towards law enforcement officers.

Conclusion

Social media is an essential tool utilized by law enforcement to communicate with the community. Online groups make it easy for officers to keep the public informed regarding traffic, crime, and the positive acts officers perform within the community. This article examined how social media platforms can be used to promote a positive image of law enforcement, and to solve crimes. With the proper policies in place, these benefits could help law enforcement agencies progress further into the digital age.

The negative consequence of having an online presence was also discussed. Although hired to protect and serve the community, social media brings to light the negative treatment some citizens have received from law enforcement. This treatment is shared globally via various social media platforms, and puts the lives of the officers at risk. This shared information stays online and is never truly erased, allowing easy access to anyone. While it is easy for social media pages to continue spreading negative images, it is difficult for law enforcement to correct past wrongs.

Law enforcement must be aware of the legality of their actions when conducting online work for a case. Many departments train officers on how to use social media for criminal cases. This needs to become a commonplace practice. Increasingly people’s lives and actions are being conducted online. Continuous training and new policy generation for online content must be established to ensure all rights are protected and that officers are not viewed in a negative light.

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