The digital detective: trends in social media and law enforcement

The digital detective: trends in social media and law enforcement

Throughout this digital literacy series I’ve examined the many ways digital media has changed the way we live. This influence is so far-reaching that there are few, if any, industries that haven’t had to adapt accordingly. With digital media playing such an important role in the everyday lives of Canadians, many of society’s basic services, including our healthcareeducation and law enforcement systems have to enter the digital media domain.

Nowhere is the adoption of social media more interesting, and sometimes controversial, than within our law enforcement system. So, just how are Canada’s police forces responding to society’s growing reliance on digital media? Today’s post offers a quick glimpse at current social media and law enforcement trends.

Canadian police forces have a social media presence

A few quick Google searches prove that police forces in Canada’s biggest cities have an active presence on Twitter. They tweet on a regular basis and have a respectable number of followers. Here’s a sample:
Law Enforcement and Social Media

It’s impressive to see so many Canadian police services venturing into the world of digital media.  A quick read through their feeds indicates that many of them are using social media in pretty impressive ways. Here are two ways Canadian police forces are using social media:

To engage with the public

Police forces play a unique role in our society – a great deal of power comes with being charged with upholding our laws. For many citizens, this power breeds feelings of distrust and weariness. Social media offers a way to break this tension – it’s a place where average people can learn more about the police in their city, law enforcement in general, and engage in transparent conversations.

Some of the top ways Canadian police forces are engaging the public on social media include:

  • Asking for help in solving crimes
  • Answering public inquiries
  • Taking complaints
  • Providing updates on cases, including arrests and the laying of charges
  • Offering safety tips
  • Promoting recruitment efforts
  • Sharing pictures and videos of police events and training activities

In preparing this post, I came across two really interesting examples of Canadian police forces offering the public an insider’s view of their day-to-day operations:

  • This summer when hundreds of Hells Angels met in Saskatoon for a national event, the Saskatoon police posted a photo ,on their Facebook page, of a police officer stopping a biker. People posted 99 comments and engaged in a conversation with officers about the Hells Angels criminal organization.
  • The Calgary Police Service posted a video to their YouTube page detailing the steps of a murder investigation from start to finish called Anatomy of an Investigation.


To investigate and prevent crime

There have been many recent examples of police using social media to investigate crimes, most notably in the aftermath of the 2011 Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver. This event taught Canadians an important lesson: what you post online is fair play for a police investigation.

Here’s another example of social media acting as a police investigative tool: a Vancouver police detective is being awarded a prize for his use of social media in investigating a pedophile. His evidence led to an eventual conviction. In the Vancouver Sun article detailing this award, the reporter quotes Det.-Const. Mark Fenton of the VPD’s technological crime unit, who offers an even stronger reminder – once you’ve posted something on Twitter or Facebook, you have no control over what your followers or friends do with it, including taking a screen shot and sending it to police.

This summer’s disturbing Luka Magnotta case highlighted a big question pertaining to social media and law enforcement strategies – many aspects of social media are inherently narcissistic (hello, selfies), but when does a well-beaten digital trail indicate something more sinister? This question is at the foundation of discussions around Internet intelligence as a law enforcement focus.

Internet intelligence is essentially psychological profiling using social media profiles and digital footprints – it’s like a good old-fashioned stake out, but done using a computer. For example, a person’s Facebook timeline could provide police with a portrait of their progression from anti-social behaviour to violent crime. If officers are watching, they can stop crime before it happens.

The future of law enforcement is social

Police forces around the world are realizing that social media is going to play an increasingly important role in law enforcement. And they’re talking about it:

  • #copchat is a weekly conversation on Twitter (every Wednesday evening). Each week features a different topic from the world of policing, law enforcement and other like-minded industries as it relates to the use of social media, Internet, communications, community building, operations and investigations.
  • is a website that offers members of law enforcement articles and tips for how to best use social media as a law enforcement and public engagement tool.

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