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Utah police are solving crimes through social media

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(photo illustration by Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police have been using social media more in their efforts to solve crime in Salt Lake City. This illustration was created by taking Hipstamatic photos of surveillance video of suspects from SLCPD's YouTube page and placing them on a screenshot of the department's Instagram feed.

By HARRY STEVENS

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Jun 25 2014 08:58AM
Updated Jul 7, 2014 02:52PM

Along with cute kittens, biting babies and rap remixes, YouTube channel surfers can expect, now more than ever, to see videos of crimes posted by police departments.

Two YouTube videos posted to the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Twitter account last week highlight the way the department is using social media to enlist the public’s assistance in solving crimes.

In one of the surveillance videos, a young man carrying a skateboard smashes the window of Cafe Expresso at 902 S. 1100 East and grabs bagels and coffee beans.

The other video shows a man in a blue and white striped shirt park his bicycle next to the office of PPBH at 1706 S. Major St. (60 East). The man enters the business and emerges moments later with a guitar. He then glances over his shoulder and flees.

Police hope that by distributing the videos through social media, residents will recognize the suspects and help detectives apprehend them.

It’s a strategy that has gained favor among police departments across the country. More than 95 percent are using social media, to some degree, and four in five say those outlets have helped them solve crimes, according to a recent study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Capt. Doug Nolte of the Wichita Police Department travels nationwide training police officers on the ins and outs of social media. Nolte was in Sandy recently, helping the Draper Police Department send its first tweet.

Even if most police departments are using social media, many of them are not using the tool effectively, Nolte said. He offered the example of a police department in Utah that had a Facebook page but had not responded to several comments that had been posted there.

"Everyone in law enforcement says they’re using social media," Nolte said. "But really what it comes down to is: Are you using it effectively, or are you just checking the box?"

Nolte noted that social media can help law enforcement build closer ties with the community, which, in turn, can help solve crimes. But social media’s power to broadcast police behavior to the world has also forced a greater self-awareness upon officers.

"It’s kind of the elephant in the room for law enforcement," Nolte said. "We don’t want there to be anything that’s overtly negative. We want to be seen as professionals, but the business that we do is inherently dangerous and it’s oftentimes messy."

That presents police with unprecedented public relations challenges. When, for example, a Salt Lake City police officer shot a dog on private property while searching for a 3-year-old boy this month, the public turned to the Internet to express its outrage.

"We need to understand that social media is going to put light on things that 10 years ago wouldn’t have made the light of day," Nolte said. "In law enforcement, we’re going to see more situations where stuff like that comes up."

If social media forums have ushered in an era of greater transparency, they also have brought less-centralized control, said Lauri Stevens, founder of Massachusetts-based LAwS Communications, a social media consultancy that works exclusively with law enforcement.

Some police departments have been slow to adapt, she said, but they resist change at their peril.

"Law enforcement is very hierarchical, top-down command. Social media is about giving up control, and it’s very difficult for law enforcement to give that up," Stevens said. "It’s really counter to police culture to do social media and do it well."

But if law enforcement can overcome those cultural roadblocks, social media may hold tremendous crime-solving potential. A recent study by Accenture found that 88 percent of residents want to help cops prevent and fight crime, but that police are failing to effectively enlist public support.

"People want to help solve crimes, but they’re busy people," Stevens said. "You have to make it easy for them."

To that end,John Harvey, deputy director of the Ogden Police Department, has for decades been developing computer systems designed to make it as easy as possible for the public to work with police in solving crimes.

"Most people get frustrated dealing with government," Harvey said. "Typically what happens is, and I’m no different, you go somewhere to a government entity, and you think, ‘They’re about to send me around the world.’ "

Harvey started working with computers in 1980, when he was with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office in Memphis, Tenn. Among his inventions: a program called CyberWatch, which lets its users find out about crimes in their area and alert the police to suspicious activity over the Internet.

Harvey’s penchant for combining computer programming with crime fighting has helped the Ogden Police Department develop a sophisticated social media strategy. Apart from using Facebook and Twitter to enlist the public’s support in solving crimes, Ogden police have a system that routes anonymous tips through a clearinghouse in Canada so that tipsters’ personal information is protected even from U.S. lawyers filing discovery motions.

The department has received numerous tips from residents who learned about crimes through social media channels that did not exist just a decade ago, Harvey said.

But focusing too much on social media outreach can also blind cops to crimes that are unlikely to be reported on social media channels, said Dave Maass, an investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"Your average sufferer of domestic violence is not necessarily going to go on Twitter and tell the Salt Lake City police about it," Maass said. "Police departments are going to want to be careful that social media doesn’t influence their policing decisions that much."

In other cases, police departments have used social media to infringe upon social media users’ digital privacy.

"We don’t think police forces should be looking over everybody’s shoulder, seeing what they’re doing online," said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Maass joined Stanley in expressing ambivalence about the social media dragnets that some departments have instituted.

"In the past, the police couldn’t look at everyone in town and follow them all around," Maass said. "Social media makes that a lot easier and a lot creepier."

Still, many police departments across Utah say they are making social media work for them. In Park City, for example, Capt. Phil Kirk updates his department’s Facebook and Twitter accounts every morning so the public and media can see the major cases they are investigating.

Park City police have also used Facebook to track down owners of lost property.

"In a resort town, we have a fair amount of property that gets left behind at hotels or ski resorts," Kirk said. When the phone book offers no assistance in contacting the owner, Facebook often comes to the rescue.

The Salt Lake City Police Department, for its part, has directed detectives with surveillance footage of crimes to the bring the video to its public affairs staff to be distributed to the public, said Detective Greg Wilking, a member of the department’s media relations team.

"Most detectives are on board with having us send out their information," Wilking said, "because they’re seeing how it’s helping them do their job."

While it is difficult for police to determine whether tips come in because of any specific social media posting, Wilking believes the strategy has been effective.

"We solve cases with it," he said.

Last month, for example, police apprehended a man who was suspected of burglarizing several businesses, including Raw Bean Coffee, 611 S. West Temple, after a tipster recognized the suspect from surveillance video of the robbery that police had sent out through social media.

When Detective R. Van Scoy, who was investigating the case, obtained surveillance footage of the Raw Bean robbery, he immediately asked the department’s media team to distribute it.

"[The suspect] was doing it almost every night, and the victims were adding up," Van Scoy said. "So I went right to the media on that."

After police arrested the suspect, the department sent out a tweet thanking the public for helping solve the crime.

"We chalked that up as a win," Wilking said.

Detectives have not received any tips since the department tweeted the Cafe Expresso and PPBH videos June 24. Police have asked anyone who can identify the suspected burglars to call 801-799-3100.

hstevens@sltrib.com

Twitter: @Harry_Stevens

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