Law Enforcement Learns the ‘Social Media Beat’

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Photo illustration: Clay Duda/JJIE.orgIt’s no secret: Social media has redefined the way people communicate, especially among the under-30 crowd. Now, law enforcement agencies are catching on and increasingly incorporating social media into their arsenal of crime-fighting tools.

Over the past few months a series of high profile social-media-turned-criminal acts have made headlines -- from flash mobs turned violent on the streets of Philadelphia to Atlanta house parties taped off as homicide scenes -- and law enforcement has taken note.

Some agencies have been quick to recognize the potential of embracing social media. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, has run a “Social Media Monitoring Center” since early 2009; Correction officials in California have worked directly with Facebook to thwart inmates from accessing social profiles while behind bars; And police in New York formed a special unit to monitor social channels for gang-related and other potential criminal acts.

In an age of status updates and geotagged tweets, sometimes it’s as simple as waiting for a criminal to make a sloppy post. But not every area of law enforcement has been swift to adopt the relatively new technologies. For them, there’s still hope.

A number of resources, conferences and workshops have been popping up around the net and the country.

Near the end of the month, experts and officials from across the United States will descend on Dallas for the fourth Social Media the Internet and Law Enforcement (SMILE) conference. The three-day mash up of lectures, workshops and Q&As will focus around the central theme of public order.

According to conference organizer Lauri Stevens, there’s just too much to cover in three days. Each SMILE conference, now the fourth since early 2010, focuses on a subject within the industry -- from cyber bullying to investigations and public order.

“If law enforcement, as a whole, can understand what can be accomplished with these tools they can reduce crime, improve their relationship and put the community back in community policing,” Stevens said.

The Dallas Police Department, co-producer of the SMILE conference, has used social media in a number of communicative and investigative capacities, according to Lieutenant Scott Walton, Unit Commander for Media Relations.

Recognizing the potential of the medium, Walton said the department is always open to improvement and essentially has to be, in order to use it effectively.

“It’s such a growing area of communication, to keep up you have to be looking for the next way to use the technology,” Walton said. “It’s really becoming more important every day.”

Since founding the IACP Center for Social Media barely a year ago, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has seen an increase in interest from members of the law enforcement community.

Program manager Nancy Kolb said it’s important for law enforcement to be aware of social media’s impact.

“Social media isn’t going away,” said Kolb. “It’s not a fad. It’s something law enforcement needs to understand and be able to use for investigation and in terms of communicating with their community.”

The Center plans to offer a number of social media workshops at this year’s IACP conference in Chicago, Oct. 22-26.

Photo illustration: Clay Duda/JJIE.org

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