Agencies use social media to bust gangs

Police agencies are using social networks to identify and capture suspects, but the officers need to be careful using the sites, panelists said at a conference April 5.

Law enforcement agencies find social media networks to be an effective tool in catching criminals, especially organized gangs, officials said at a conference April 5.

At the same time, sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter also are being used by police departments to interact with the community, and they present dangers for officer safety, panelists said at the LexisNexis Government 2011 Insight Conference in Washington.

Gang members have been captured after posting photographs of themselves on Facebook or Twitter displaying tattoos and inscribed gang necklaces. Some of the suspects pose on Facebook with stolen money or guns, or show videos of themselves on YouTube with cars that have been identified as evidence in a crime, officials said.

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“They want to brag,” said Greg Antonsen, deputy inspector for the New York Police Department. “Never underestimate their desire to show off. It works against them.”

Federal, state and local agencies are using as investigative evidence some photographs, tweets, social linkages and social events posted publicly on the Web to identify and track suspected criminals. In one case, a man wanted for felony theft was captured after posting on Twitter that he would be hosting his own birthday party at a specific venue and listing a specific date and time.

“We had two detectives grab him up when he got out of the limo. He never got to celebrate his birthday,” Antonsen said.

Suspected gang members actively use popular sites such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Twitter, but they also migrate to dozens of lesser-known social networking sites, including sites for popular nightclubs, officials said.

Daniel Gerard, a captain of the Cincinnati Police Department, said his department worked closely with four doctoral students from a nearby academic institution to help identify IT tools and methods that would be effective.

Law enforcement agencies can use Internet Protocol addresses at nondescript locations, such as the public library or local college, so that it is more difficult for suspects to realize their computer activity is being tracked by police, Gerard said. After finding possible evidence on the Web, it is a good idea to do a dated screen-capture of the Web page immediately to safeguard against the possible removal of the evidence at a later date, he said.

Law enforcement officials need in-depth knowledge of software and social media tools to outwit the increasingly sophisticated criminals using those tools, Gerard added.

“I will not do a major criminal investigation without academic support,” he said.

Lauri Stevens, a consultant to police departments on social media and officer safety, said her priority is assisting officers in protecting their own privacy while engaged in social media, either for work or in their personal lives.

She advised police officers to be extremely careful about posting any photographs or identifying information on Facebook and on the Web in general. Gangs are becoming more sophisticated about using social networks, along with facial recognition and geospatial positioning technologies, to identify and track police officers and even the officers’ family members, she added.

“GPS and facial recognition are huge game-changers for officer safety,” Stevens said.

Police officers also are advised to avoid making any comments about criminal suspects or convicts on Facebook and Twitter because it could be used as evidence against the officers, Stevens added. In one case, an officer was involved in a shooting, and comments he made about the case on Facebook were used as evidence against him.

Defense attorneys for criminal suspects are also combing through arresting officers’ Facebook profiles searching for incriminating evidence that could be used against the officer in court, Gerard added.

Some police departments have successfully used Facebook, Twitter and other social sites to boost their public relations. The police department of Richmond, Va., has gotten good responses to its daily postings on Facebook about arrests, confiscations and other police activity, said Dionne Waugh, public affairs representative for the department.

“It is one of the most popular things we have on our Facebook site,” Waugh said. “We get many comments on it, and it is all stuff you would not hear in the mainstream media.”