Police Expand Social Media Reach to Help Solve Cases, Fight Crime

NORWOOD, MASSACHUSETTS -- 09/01/2012 -- Norwood patrolman, Andrew Jurewich, shows the facebook page that the Norwood Police Department recently started using. Jurewich maintains the facebook, twitter and web pages for the department. Brian Feulner for the Boston Globe
Norwood Police officer Andrew Jurewich was active on the department’s Facebook page.
The Boston Globe

When we hear about reports of law enforcement using social media to help solve crimes, we usually just think of Facebook and Twitter.

But some agencies have expended their social media acumen to include Pinterest, the self-described “visual discovery tool that you can use to find ideas for all your projects and interests.”

And those “projects and interests” apparently include solving cold cases, according to NPR, which reported that detective Dave Stahler and the Redwood City, Calif. Police Department used Pinterest to help find the owner of a bracelet that was stolen three decades ago.

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Eight hours after posting on his department's Facebook, Twitter -- and the Pinterest page the agency launched in February -- Stahler received information from not one but three people who helped identify the owner of the bracelet. That alone would be a good story -- but when you learn that the jewelry was actually a mother's keepsake engraved with the names and birth dates of her children and stolen during a residential burglary in 1983, well, it's sweeter than all the red velvet cupcake recipes on Pinterest combined.

A 2013 survey found that 80.4% of law enforcement polled said social media has helped them solve crimes in their jurisdiction, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

The Boston Police Department said it no longer uses Pinterest as a crime-fighting tool.

“We’ve used it in the past but the account is inactive at this point,” said liaison agent James Moccia. “We are actively reviewing our social media but for now we are mainly using Twitter, Facebook, and our blog.”

Some other departments are trying to take social media crime fighting to an entirely new level.

A suburban Washington, D.C. police department last week announced its intention to live tweet a prostitution sting operation.

YouTube is getting in on the crime-fighting act, as well, according to NPR.

With the Missing Person Pre-Roll project, the Australian Federal Police teamed up with YouTube to turn the annoying, unavoidable "pre-roll" (shown before the video you actually want to see) into the first scrolling missing-persons campaign. It reached 1.2 million people, resulted in 238 viewers clicking "Yes, I have," and won an activism award at this year's South by Southwest Interactive. Beats the old 1980s back of the milk carton.

Entrepreneur.com, a website about business ideas and trends, reported that there could be some pitfalls to the practice quickly being adopted by law enforcement.

Police departments, which already generate high levels of both emotion and controversy, are particularly susceptible to social media misfires. That's because, at least in part, while most businesses and brands have a solid grasp on what you should and shouldn't do on social media in a professional context, the do's and don'ts in the context of law enforcement are less established.

Lauri Stevens, an expert on the use of social media in law enforcement, thinks the good that comes from police using social media to solve crime likely outweighs the bad, according to NPR.

Social media is good for citizen safety, community-cop bonding and cracking cold cases, yes. But it's also good for police, who stand to benefit from becoming just as good at using these sites as the people they're sworn to protect. Not only can a greater use and understanding of social media platforms help police reach people in new ways -- but experts like Stevens say social media proficiency among cops is needed to keep law enforcement on equal footing with law breakers.