Police departments around the world have realized the power of conducting social media investigations—but are they properly equipped to harness these often sporadic leads into actionable intelligence?
Events play out in real time — and now we have the technology to capture them. With 81% of Americans carrying a smartphone, citizens feel empowered to act, document and help when they see something criminal happen. Officers around the world have come to the realization that many present-day crimes are increasingly well-documented online — thus the revolution of law enforcement social media investigations.
Whether it’s a perpetrator, a witness, or a third party posting details on their pages, discussions around crimes on social media have become a surprisingly swift and reliable source of potential leads.
Take the Boston Marathon bombing in April of 2013 as an example. As it occurred, tips, photos, videos and more flooded social media instantly. In an intense investigative process involving over 1,000 law enforcement personnel, the case made a breakthrough after a rigorous search through these leads, ultimately helping officers identify perpetrators Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev — and bring justice to the hundreds injured and slain.
Investigative Crowdsourcing: A New Way to Gather Leads
Investigative crowdsourcing is a method of collecting critical information and investigative leads through the mass public — likely through social media. Its contribution to investigations has grown exponentially. In 2016, 80% of law enforcement reportedly used social media to solve crimes. That’s a pretty significant number.
Why has social media become such a focus for officers? In large part, because of “reach.”
There are an estimated 200 million active Facebook users in the U.S. and an estimated 70 million active users on Twitter. Citizens are posting constantly — adding to the data (and leads) available in an investigation.
Crowdsourcing leads on social media helps officers do everything from finding missing persons to solving murders to catching assailants. For example, in West Midlands, England, someone posted graphic footage of an assault that took place on a bus. Within 24 hours, the suspect was identified and eventually sentenced.
The power of law enforcement social media investigations is undeniable. But how do you actually leverage this intelligence to solve more crimes?
Turning Crowdsourcing Chaos into Actual Intelligence
Social media as a resource for agencies might be the biggest asset to solving crimes in a long time, but there are still plenty of kinks to work out. Getting more leads does not mean you’re getting better or more useful leads, and an influx of anywhere from thousands to tens of thousands of tips can paralyze a department.
That’s why it’s so important to have the right tools equipped.
High-profile crimes can happen anywhere, regardless of the size of the jurisdiction. Whether a department is 40,000 or just four strong, they require the same capabilities for accepting and assessing lead. But they are at a major disadvantage when it comes to manpower and technology. A department in the middle of a rural area can’t invest the same hours and staff as a big-city force in manually writing, sorting, hand counting and filing leads.
But there are ways to level the playing field.
With the right software, any sized department can effectively handle a large volume of investigative leads to help put two and two together.
The right investigative case management software is one that’s available 24/7/365 on the cloud with robust integration capabilities. Investigators and supervisors need the ability to organize, prioritize, manage and monitor tips, no matter if they’re generated in different investigative case folders, or if the officer is on the field or in the precinct. Cross-collaboration and intuitive workflows are key to bringing the most accurate data to law enforcement officers’ fingertips.
Don’t waste precious time having dozens of employees searching through endless folders, social media posts and stacks of paper attempting to create associations and match the common leads in a case. Look for a solution that seamlessly integrates lead data directly into an investigative case folder to ensure actionable information will be identified and investigated immediately, speeding the entire process.
For example, say 6,000 leads come through social media with 500 of them mentioning the assailant drove a red Ford pickup truck. You want to be able to merge leads of the same sort and search these commonalities with ease, cutting what would have been a 30-man job down to a one-man jog, saving countless days of work and valuable resources.
The Digital Age of Law Enforcement
It’s official. Times have changed and law enforcement agencies no longer need to rely solely on media outlets to gather leads. Conducting social media investigations will crowdsource an abundance of leads in real time. But without the right method for accepting and assessing the information, agencies can quickly become overwhelmed. Making a small investment into the right software will pay dividends by preparing agencies of any size maximum efficiency and solve crimes quicker.
All law enforcement software is not created equal. Need investigation tools to generate better insights … without the massive price tag or IT-bloat? Contact us to learn more about ShotSpotter Investigate.
About the Author: Michael Cunningham has more than 27 years of experience with the New York City Police Department and achieved the rank of Detective First Grade. He is now part of the ShotSpotter Investigate case management team and stays active in the industry instructing courses in forensics and response to terrorist incidents.