Study Shows Law Enforcement Using Social Media For Crime Investigation, Prevention


A new study from LexisNexis shows widespread use of social media by law enforcement for criminal investigations and crime prevention, but few have an established policy. According to the study eight out of ten law enforcement officials use social media for criminal investigations. A full 67% of respondents said they also agree that social media is an effective tool for crime anticipation.

The study is a follow-on from one conducted in 2012, and nearly all of the numbers show an increase in the use of social media since the previous survey. 78% percent of respondents that use social media as part of their work say they expect using social media in investigations will become a mainstream practice.

Facebook and YouTube topped the list of social media networks law enforcement check out, followed by Twitter.

Yet, 52% of those surveyed say their organization doesn’t have a formal process for using social media in criminal investigation and prevention. Only 33% have a dedicated social media monitor while the rest leave it to individual officers.

New questions in the survey asked when law enforcement engages with social media with 40% saying they use it to monitor special events; 34% use it to notify the public of crimes, and 34% use it to notify the public of emergencies or disasters.

The nationwide study was conducted online and solicited feedback from 496 participants at every level of law enforcement – from rural localities to major metropolitan cities and federal agencies – producing a comprehensive view of the social media landscape.  Respondents are active law enforcement professionals ranging in age, experience and job level.

The use of social media in criminal investigations and crime prevention presents a unique set of legal and ethical questions. Few states have codified how they plan to handle social media in court – the eventual landing place for social media monitored by law enforcement.  According to a recent article in the Richmond Journal of Law and Technology, authors Justin P. Murphy & Adrian Fontecilla, touch on these issues in their article Social Media Evidence in Government Investigations and Criminal Proceedings: A Frontier of New Legal Issues. They note that in some instances, jury rules have been updated to prohibit the use of social media while on jury duty, yet when it comes to court cases themselves the road is less clear. Both judges and lawyers appear to be relying on existing admissibility rules when it comes to using social media, although that doesn’t take into account how easy it is to fake a social media posting, or the significant upper hand the government has when it comes to being able to leverage National Security Letters (NSLs) or metadata requests to build a case against someone.

The use of social media also raises questions around the 5th Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination. In the case of an NSL for example, individuals often have no recourse to finding out that an NSL has been issued on them or what evidence has been collected.

There are also questions about how effective social media can be when it comes to anticipating criminal activity.  False postings and the anonymity of social media can allow for random tips to be submitted to law enforcement, effectively sending police on a wild goose chase. As CivSource has previously reported, law enforcement agencies are also relying on big data analytics to provide insights about their local communities, and social media monitoring can be part of that analytics process. Without clear guidance from the statehouse or federal authorities, law enforcement is likely to continue its widespread use of social media with boundaries being defined through individual case rulings. Watch this space.