Surfing for Suspects: Law Enforcement and Social Media

By Rachel Martin

November 14, 2012 Updated Nov 14, 2012 at 6:30 PM EDT

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (www.incnow.tv) – Social media websites aren't just for socializing anymore. In fact, many law enforcement agencies have found things like Facebook to be a very resourceful tool for catching criminals.

You might've noticed that Fort Wayne Police and other local agencies now have Facebook pages for their departments. True, they use it for public information, but it aids them in solving crimes too.

If you're up to no good—don't put it on Facebook.

“People are thinking that they're sharing information and that it's just with their friends but that isn't always the case. Items are re-shared, maybe saved, downloaded from a computer and then resurfaces in some other area of social media, and so we use it in that way,” said Officer Raquel Foster, Public Information Officer for the police department.

Foster says that information can be helpful when solving crimes, but it's more about what officers post on their Facebook page.

“We will share information about suspects that we might be trying to identify. We will release images via our department website and then we feed that into social media, and we need help from the public to identify them,” she said.

Images like mug shots and stills from surveillance video, but it's not just about gathering information, they use it to spread helpful tips.

“Maybe an OWI blitz that's coming or a seat belt blitz, we share information about investigations,” Foster said.

Law enforcement does use social media to capture bad guys and put them in jail, but they use Facebook for other things.

“We don't use social media to solve crimes, but if we can prove that registered offenders who aren't supposed to use social media are using it, then we can prosecute that,” said Cpl. Mike Smothermon.

That's right, the Allen County Sheriff's Department uses Facebook to supervise sex offenders, but they can't get into to details on how they do it.

“All we can really say is, just we teach the public for years that you never know who you're talking to online, that's pretty much the way it is here,” said Cpl. Jeff Shimkus. “You could be talking to a cop or you could be talking to a predator, you just never know.”

But there are ways you can find out: go to the Allen County Sheriff's Department website, click on “Sex Offender Registry” and click “Search for Offenders in Your Area”. Just type in an email address and you'll be informed on whether that person's a sex offender or not, along with a number to call authorities.

“We have some offenders who are not allowed to use social networking websites that have minors on them, so a lot of times we depend on the public to be our eyes and our ears,” said Shimkus.

Law enforcement agencies aren’t required to use social media networks, but officers say it's something they've found very necessary to keep up with the changing times.

Agencies recognize that some people don't get their information through general means—like radio, newspapers, or even the evening news—anymore, but instead through the internet and websites. Using social media is just one more way for law enforcement to keep the public informed and safe.




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