Social Media and Law Enforcement

Law enforcement agencies are using social media sites more than ever before. Many agencies use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to communicate with the public. Increasingly, however, agencies are using social media to aid in investigations. This can be a great tool, but it comes with some controversy and can even leave agencies vulnerable to legal issues.

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The information that individuals post — both public and in some cases, private— is being used by a growing number of law enforcement agencies on local, state, and federal levels for investigations and prosecutions. A 2012 survey shows that 80 percent of law enforcement respondents used social media in investigations and 83 percent of those intend to use it more in the future. Of those not currently using social media, 74 percent of polled individuals planned to start. The survey also found that Facebook and YouTube were used most often by law enforcement to identify people and locations as well as discover criminal activity.

Much success has come out of agencies using social media to catch criminals. A recent CNN article points to a number of instances, including the 2008 case of Ronnie Tienda Jr., who was prosecuted primarily on words and photos he posted on his social media accounts. But as the article points out, an agency’s use of social media in investigations sometimes isn’t as easy as searching for a name on Facebook since users can set their accounts as “private.”

In these instances, agencies sometimes result to getting friends of suspects to release private information they have access to, and sometimes investigators even go so far as to set up fake accounts in order to “friend” suspects and access their information. These tactics can be controversial because privacy advocates argue that it infringes on a user’s rights and can be against a site’s terms of use. In worst-case scenarios, misusing information from a social media site can result in agency embarrassment and liability issues.

The danger for public safety agencies extends beyond just what information is found on social media while investigating suspects—it can also move into the personal profiles of law enforcement personnel. A New York Times article discusses how an officer’s Facebook status update the day before a trial gave the defense an edge in court. The defense was able to use the officer’s status update indicating that his mood was “devious,” along with some other examples of his online activities, to argue that the officer tried to cover up his use of excessive force.

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In order to address controversial practices, a public safety agency should have a social media policy in place, and the IACP Center for Social Media found that fewer than half of agencies from a 2012 survey actually do. Resources like the IACP Center offer a lot of information agencies can use to set up and understand social media policies. Another resource is ConnectedCops.Net, a site that aims to provide information and education on social media use for public safety agencies. Furthermore, a useful FBI Bulletin on social media points out some things agencies should think about when dealing with these policies, including necessary precautions on agency employee accounts.

As the evolution of social media continues—and along with it, the laws that govern social media’s use—public safety agencies will need to stay flexible and informed if they want to use it to aid investigations and enhance service to the public.

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