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How social media tools can help PDs overcome data overload

Incorporating a formal toolset into an agency’s social media program can dramatically help officers sift through data at a very large scale


In this April 12, 2013 photo, NYPD officials stand next to photos that accused cocaine dealers posted on social media. The suspects posed with stacks of cash, guns and diamond-crusted watches.

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Pulse of Policing 2015: The State of Law Enforcement is an ongoing research venture aimed at examining the current state of policing in America from the individual, organizational, and industrial perspectives. Below is an article in a series of pieces which will address how the private industry is tackling the challenges police departments are currently facing. Learn more about Pulse of Policing


By Rick Graham, Public Safety Business Development Specialist, LexisNexis Risk Solutions, and Chief of Detectives (Ret.) for the Jacksonville (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office

Law enforcement agencies nationwide are always on the lookout for tools that will give them an edge over the criminals they police. Working in a fast-paced and mobile environment, officers need timely access to the latest information and intelligence — information that may actually be a matter of life or death for officers and the citizens they protect. As a result, agencies are adapting their processes to take advantage of new innovations and technologies to more effectively deliver on their public safety mission.

The prevailing trend has been to leverage cloud-based solutions wherever possible. The meaning of “the cloud” has been obscured by a period of buzzword marketing, but it essentially boils down to information or applications that are hosted on a server that is remotely accessible. Of the many cloud-based technologies being leveraged by modern law enforcement agencies, social media monitoring is receiving significant attention — and for good reason. In October 2015, Pew Research Center published a report noting that 65 percent of American adults use social networking sites.

Social media can be a valuable resource for law enforcement, providing locations, habits, social relationships and a wealth of other information – often provided by suspects themselves – that can help maintain public safety. Look no further than the recent DUI arrest of a Florida woman who live-streamed herself driving intoxicated on a social media app called Periscope. As reported on the Today Show, the woman was apprehended about 20 minutes after she aired her video, removing a potentially dangerous situation from the community.

Generating Insights from Social Media
According to our research, eight out of 10 law enforcement professionals use social media, with criminal investigations being the most common use (63 percent). More than half (51 percent) are using social media for crime prevention activities, and 67 percent agree that social media is an effective tool for crime anticipation. The use of social media in the law enforcement profession will continue to increase, as 78 percent of current users expect to use it even more often in the future.

This all adds up to the present scenario, where information is so abundant that modern law enforcement’s problem has shifted from a lack of actionable intelligence to an overwhelming surplus of data. Therefore, law enforcement agencies need tools capable of separating that actionable intelligence from the sea of social media data currently available. They need to find their proverbial needles in the haystack.

The Push and the Pull
Incorporating a formal toolset into an agency’s social media program can dramatically help officers sift through data at a very large scale efficiently and effectively, empowering them to discover previously unobtainable insights for preventive and predictive operations. This includes both the push (community outreach) and the pull (investigative tactics) capabilities inherent with the use of social media tools.

1. The Push
Social media tools can put law enforcement officers in conversation with the communities they serve, such as for safely and efficiently communicating life-saving information to individuals during times of emergency. It provides a quick, effective way to get details, information or updates directly out to the community on a one-to-many basis. The Boston Marathon bombing is one of the first large-scale examples of this type of push communication, where authorities issued updates to the public in close to real-time through their various social media platforms.

2. The Pull
Of potentially greater use to law enforcement is the use of social media tools for investigative purposes and predictive policing capabilities. Officers leverage the data to gather information to help generate witness pools, reach out for online tip collecting and safely contact potential witnesses who may put themselves or law enforcement officers in danger if they were to engage in physical communication. On a larger level, looking at a community through its digital portrayal empowers agencies to achieve and maintain situational awareness. For example, officers can see social media content about the location they are responding to — providing insight into the sentiment, threats and upcoming events in that community.

Social media tools can be used to more quickly confirm the credibility of threats — helping law enforcement to stop violent crime before it happens by connecting information gleaned from social media with traditional law enforcement resources, such as police records, known associates or crime trend data. Officers have begun monitoring the use of certain keywords and slang terms to anticipate criminal activity and identify the geographic location where it will happen.

Officers can also monitor where past and potential criminals are likely located by geographically tracking the suspects’ most recent social media interactions, then assign resources for patrol or investigation accordingly. By making these connections, officers can determine not only whether crime is likely to take place, but also when and where criminal behavior is likely to occur.

Whether the situation requires the identification and tracking of a large-scale party with known drug dealers and gang members or a lone suspect making death threats against officers, the use of social media with comprehensive analytical capabilities enables officers to take a proactive policing approach to crime prevention. Social media can help unlock the value of data to discover risks and threats, offering law enforcement a more advanced view into areas where incidents are more likely to occur and enabling them to prevent crime and enhance public safety.

21st Century Policing
When dealing with the 21st century criminal, law enforcement needs to implement 21st century police tactics. The fight against crime is shifting from a street corner approach to online communities and networks where illegal activities are planned, organized, perpetrated and even boasted about. Harnessing these insights and leveraging them to preemptively stop criminals can save lives and empower police to keep the communities they serve safe — enabling officers to remain one step ahead.

Social media tools can be the cornerstone of effective digital policing. These tools empower law enforcement to safely correspond with the communities they serve and gain powerful insights that they might not obtain through traditional on-the-ground police work.

Leveraging social media platforms as an investigative tool not only increases law enforcement intelligence while keeping officers safe, but equips them with additional information about threats that may have otherwise gone unrecognized until it was too late. By situating themselves within their digital communities, officers can better ensure the safety of their physical communities.