The Social Media Canvass: A 21st Century Law Enforcement Tool
When a violent crime occurs and the police respond they begin to establish a command post where they plan on where and how to conduct the canvass for additional witnesses. There are many types of canvasses that the police conduct and now we have one with a 21st century twist. Properly conducted canvasses SHAVES hours off investigative time. Here are the different types of canvasses investigators should deploy during a major investigation:
Surveillance Camera Canvass
Additional Witness Canvass
Social Media Canvass
At the makeshift command post an investigative strategy takes place with the supervisor and the investigators. They develop a plan on what buildings to canvass first for additional witnesses. Generally, they start with the building that faces the scene and spiral outwards from there. However, before doing the traditional canvasses, investigators have a new tool at their disposal, the Social Media Canvass.
The Social Media Canvass allows investigators to follow the conversations about the incident via social media. A couple of clicks or swipes and investigators are “listening to the chatter on the electronic street.” The two most popular social media venues are Twitter and Facebook. Twitter is a lot easier to work with because you don’t need an account to start conducting searches.
For instance, the investigator arrives at the scene of a homicide on Main Street in Anytown. They step over the yellow tape and into the hot zone. Before the investigator whips out his/her’s reporter’s notebook and starts knocking on doors, they’ll pull out the department issued wireless tablet, laptop or smartphone and start searching. This is a better strategy then deciding on what door to knock on. Within seconds of an incident, people in the neighborhood, and sometimes those that are involved, are tweeting or posting on Facebook.
Here is how a search could work. The investigator goes to the Twitter.com search box and uses the hashtag (#) and types what they are looking for. In this scenario, the shooting occurred on Main Street in Anytown, so the separate searches would look something like this: #MainStreet, #MainSt, #Anytown, #ShootingMainStreet or any other combination. Based on the information they see, a better canvass strategy can be developed. Recently while searching for information on a past shooting incident, I found a Tweet that stated in sum and substance, “the cops just showed up at “Bill’s” house be careful of what you post.”
Catching conversations on Facebook is challenging because the investigator needs an account to start searching. That account should be an authorized department account, not their personal one. As easy it is for law enforcement to track suspects, they can track us!
Since there are over 700 million users on Facebook there is a good chance that your suspect has an account, especially if they are in the young adult age range. Before signing onto Facebook with the department’s password, the investigator should conduct a few general searches to narrow the focus. Most, if not all investigators will go straight to Google, but that is not the best search for Facebook. Microsoft’s Bing is Facebook’s default search engine. Another free site that provides an individual’s social media page information without signing up for an account is http://pipl.com.
Once the page is discovered it maybe public, which means limited information, such as a photo, street name, etc., can be viewed without being friends. However, if the page is for friends only, look at the lower left hand part of the screen. It often provides friends of the target’s page. Click on the target’s friends because one of their sites maybe public, which would allow the investigator to enter their world.
As the use of social media by police investigators increases in the short term, there will be many court challenges regarding it’s use in the future. It is important for investigators to follow the policies and procedures set forth by their departments. Do not do anything that can jeopardize your career, the case or your personal safety.
Joseph L. Giacalone is a 19 year NYPD Detective Sergeant with an extensive background in criminal investigations. He has held many prestigious positions, but his favorite was the Commanding Officer of the Cold Case Homicide Squad. Joe obtained a Master of Arts Degree in Criminal Justice with a Specialty in Crime and Deviance from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2005. He has been an Adjunct Professor at John Jay since January of 2006 and is the author of the Criminal Investigative Function: A Guide for New Investigators, published by Looseleaf Law. You can follow Joe on Twitter: @ColdCaseSquad or @JoeGiacalone or on the web at: coldcasesquad.com