Social media for investigators: Why departments should invest in training

According to a new research survey, four out of five of investigators using social media for investigative purposes said they are 'self taught'

It is becoming increasingly imperative for law enforcement agencies big and small to develop officers’ investigative skills in the online social networking world.

That’s but one of the many conclusions found in a comprehensive new survey — conducted in a partnership between Police1 and LexisNexis Risk Solutions — focused on the impact of social media on law enforcement in criminal investigations.

Among the highlights are:
   • 83 percent of current users expect to use social media more in the coming year
   • 67 percent of officers believe social media solves crime more quickly
   • 80 percent of officers use social media for investigative purposes

Opportunities (and Hurdles) Ahead
Reading between the lines of the recently-released survey, one inference in particular leaps out — there is an enormous opportunity ahead for law enforcement to detect, investigate, interdict, and prosecute criminal activity, provided that agencies are willing to make an investment in training and resource allocation.

Importantly, however, the survey stated that a “lack of access and familiarity” are primary reasons for non-use with 70 percent of respondents either unable to access social media during work hours or “do not have enough background to use” social media for investigative purposes.

After the survey results were revealed, one of my contacts at LexisNexis connected me with Captain Daniel W. Gerard, Special Operations Section Commander for the Cincinnati (Ohio) Police Department, to talk about this topic in deeper detail, and to get some best practices which may be useful for other departments across the country.

Captain Gerard explained first and foremost that in order to be effective, you must have an understanding of how many social media sites are actually out there beside the big three of Facebook, You Tube, and Twitter. 

“The Cincinnati Police Department now monitors over 30 websites a day for gang related activity,” Captain Gerard said. “It is also important to understand the slang/lingo used on these sites — what these terms mean and the context around them.”

Addressing the issue of officer training in social networking investigations techniques, Captain Gerard added, “We were originally trained in social media and social network analysis by the Institute for Crime Science at the University of Cincinnati and now conduct our own training for CPD officers.”

Gerard stated further that being online doesn’t mean you leave by the wayside any of the “old school” investigative abilities that law enforcers have been using for years. 

“These include the ability to assemble a puzzle of information by working backwards from what you already know and to follow that information wherever it may lead. Social media plays the dual role of providing new intelligence, but can also verify what you may only suspect,” Gerard said.

“Investigators can maximize their ability to locate information about criminal exploits by monitoring as many sites as they can — you never know which one could provide the critical information required to assist in a case."

Is MySpace Still Relevant?
Several years ago, MySpace was literally littered with posts containing information about gang activity — this became particularly apparent as the law-abiding members bailed out en masse for the Facebook alternative. As Gerard mentioned, his team now watches more than 30 unique online community sites, and new sites are cropping up all the time.

“MySpace is not nearly as popular as it used to be.  However, everything in law enforcement and society is cyclical so we continue to monitor it and are often surprised at what we find, with some of our targets reverting back to it thinking we will no longer be looking there.”

What other online communities are out there which give law enforcement opportunities for investigations? Well, here a just a few of the more popular websites Cincinnati PD monitors:

Putting it Together
“Social media is only one component of an investigation. Information found on social media sites regarding criminal activity needs to be verified by other means in order to make a prosecutable case against a suspect.  That being said, social media is a great starting point and can often steer an investigator in a direction he or she would have never thought of by using conventional means.” 

As officers start to secure more formal training and gain an increased comfort level in the power of social media, the value it provides will continue to rise.

“Social media is going to continue to grow in importance as a criminal investigation tool,” Gerard concluded. “Police departments need to stay current with the various social media technologies and realize that criminals are readily embracing those technologies in an effort to escape detection.”

I completely concur. According to survey respondents, search warrants utilizing social media to establish probable cause hold up in court 87 percent of the time when challenged.

So why are we not making the investment in training officers in this new investigative tool? 

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