Facebook has become a key tool in police investigations.
Police routinely access suspects’ Facebook pages to look at recent activities and establish connections between offenders or offender and victim.
Facebook helps police make arrests.
Tracking on Facebook can often help police anticipate a wanted person’s whereabouts and expedite arrest.
Facebook is the reason for collapse of a growing number of prosecutions.
However, the use of Facebook by victims and witnesses has resulted in many identity parades being declared inadmissible in court.
Facebook is a mixed blessing for law enforcement
All new technologies prompt a renewal of the battle between law enforcement agencies and the criminals they seek to detect, arrest and prosecute. The advent of social media has resulted in a period of rapid adaptation in both detection and avoidance techniques.
So powerful has Facebook become as an investigation tool (leaving aside the all too common cases where offenders openly brag about their crimes on FB posts) that many civilians routinely employ it. Human Resource departments have been quick learners – there are probably now thousands of people in the UK who have lost their jobs when they rang in sick but were well enough to post on Facebook about the fantastic night out they had.
There was an interesting story last week about a Lancashire man who succeeded in identifying the two soldiers who assaulted him by trawling through Facebook accounts of mutual friends. His online “detective” work resulted in arrest and prosecution.
However, although Facebook has greatly enhanced the police’s capacity for effective investigation and arrest, it has proved to be an obstruction in a number of cases where proving identity is key.
The Police Federation National Detective Forum revealed that a number of trials have collapsed after victims and witnesses conducted their own online investigations, browsing Facebook and Twitter to learn more details about the accused.
This is particularly prevalent when a witness or victim has looked up the accused on Facebook prior to an identity parade or trial. In these situations, they are identifying the defendant from their Facebook photo rather than from the time of the offence.
There was a well reported incident at Bristol Crown Court last summer when the judge invited the jury to return a not guilty verdict in a burglary trial. In this case the victim’s neighbour suspected her own grandson of committing the offence and told the victim. Unfortunately the victim herself looked up the grandson on Facebook prior to identifying him from a video identity parade leading to the judge ruling that there was a strong danger of mistaken identity.
“Have you looked at the defendant’s Facebook page?” in order to get evidence dismissed.
It will be interesting to see what strategies police and prosecutors adapt to preserve the integrity of the identity parade.
Russell Webster is a Brit who trained as a probation officer until a year working in Pittsburgh sent him in new directions. He has worked full time as an independent consultant, researcher, writer and trainer specialising in the fields of drugs and crime since 1996. He has particular expertise around young people, offender health, social networking/digital engagement and payment by results. He is a regular blogger on these issues at www.russellwebster.com
This post was previously published at RussellWebster.com