News Column

As Social Media Evolves, Police Keep Up

March 25, 2013

Allison M. Roberts

The evolution of social media has changed the way law enforcement takes in and sends out messages. It also requires agencies to keep up with technology in order to stay ahead of people who use social media to commit crimes -- or brag about them.

Sgt. Stephen Anders of the Bedford County Sheriff's Office and member of the Southern Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force said social media is a double-edged sword.

Anders said social media has greatly increased and magnified the amount of criminal activity -- especially when it comes to child exploitation. While it is a great source of information, Anders said, it can also create more work for law enforcement to do.

Pittsylvania County Sheriff Mike Taylor said there are just as many advantages in using social media as there are disadvantages. He said a number of issues are brought to light by people who may see something on Facebook they feel is worth reporting.

In situations like that, Taylor said the agency has to take a look at it and determine whether or not it is an issue of public safety. He said recently deputies were made aware of a young man's picture on a social media site, and it took several people the better part of a day to determine there was no threat.

"It was labor intensive, but when those issues are brought to our attention, you have to show due diligence to find out," Taylor said. "I think social media is something that is not going away. It's not a fad. This is something that is going to stay with law enforcement for generations to come."

Chief Philip Broadfoot of the Danville Police Department said social media sites are another tool for law enforcement to use, but it has to be used with caution. He said most of the information is put out there by people who might be trying to project a certain image of them that is not accurate.

"It's another tool and lead, but the biggest thing is you have to take everything with a grain of salt," Broadfoot said. "We listen for complaints and sift through that. You use what you can and discard the rest."

Last summer, the Pittsylvania County Sheriff's Office launched a cyber crimes unit that is aimed at watching for online predators and scam artists. Taylor said keeping up with evolving technology is important because as law enforcement gets better, so do criminals.

A few years ago, deputies were able to apprehend a potential predator through an undercover investigation where a deputy posed as an underage girl. The man she was talking to believed she was underage and arranged a spot where they could meet. The man showed up at the prearranged spot to pick up the girl he believed he was talking to and was arrested.

Taylor said these are the types of issues that confront local law enforcement, and while it is costly to monitor and investigate cases, they have to stay in front of those issues the best they can. He said there is no way to know how that situation would have turned out -- or who his other victims may have been -- but it could have ended very differently if those investigators had not been there to intervene.

Anders said task force had a case that came to them in February regarding pictures a girl had posted on the popular picture application called Instagram. The girl's boyfriend had broken up with her on Valentine's Day and she posted pictures where she was cutting herself and holding a gun to her head.

The task force got the call late on a Friday night, and Anders said there was no way a judge could issue a court order at that time allowing investigators to get the girl's information. Anders said investigators were able to contact Instagram, identify themselves, explain the situation and figure out who the girl is.

The Danville Police Department and the Pittsylvania County Sheriff's Office both have notification services that allow people who sign up to receive information sent out and it allows constant contact with the community. Notices of robberies, shootings, car accidents and information on wanted suspects are examples of the information pushed out through the notification services.

Taylor said for law enforcement, social media is a way to disseminate information quickly and reach a large number of people. For a person who is more likely to check their Facebook page multiple times rather than watch the news, Anders said using the social media site to distribute information is more likely to reach those people.

"In law enforcement, we use it as a method to get messages out to our public who may subscribe to social media," Taylor said. "We can get out a mass message in a short period of time."

Source: (c) 2013 the Danville Register & Bee (Danville, Va.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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