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Utah police are solving crimes through social media

Posting surveillance video and inviting public interaction grow as tools for combating crime.

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"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.

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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."

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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.

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