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With These New Digital Tools, Citizens Can Help Police Solve Crimes

Last year in Seattle, anarchist May Day protestors dressed in all black turned violent, using sticks and bats to smash the windows of any store...

Last year in Seattle, anarchist May Day protestors dressed in all black turned violent, using sticks and bats to smash the windows of any store or car in sight. When trying to track down suspects, Seattle police officers scoured sites like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr for any citizen-created images or video that could help them track down suspects. The key was to find the time and location of the crime, and work around that simple information, finding unique characteristics in the images.
The same thought process has been applied to the recent Boston Marathon bombing with, a site that easily allows participants who were there to forward mobile device images and video to law enforcement. In the wake of disaster, the FBI is on the hunt for evidence. Although the suspect was apprehended and charged, there are still so many questions to be answered, which is why every cellphone photo counts.
The site was launched by a handful of local Boston entrepreneurs because, though the FBI is accepting submission through email, it can be cumbersome to upload large files from your phone to email. Additionally, crucial meta data like time and GPS stamps are often stripped in the process. The uploader site is easy to use and keeps information intact.
As our connectivity increases, we're seeing a growing number of cases of law enforcement using social media and other digital tools to help solve crimes. A study from Accenture, a global management and consulting agency, showed that 72 percent of respondent citizens believe that social media can help in crime investigations and in the prosecution of offenders.
Even more, 81 percent, believe Facebook is the most effective platform for communication between citizen and law enforcement. It makes sense; Facebook allows user to essentially create digital “Wanted” ads with plenty of information, and the ability to make updates in real time.
Still, as active as citizens are with digital tools, law enforcement agencies can step it up to create a two-way conversation. It’s not enough for people to submit information, leads, and tips; the agencies themselves need to proactively engage with the community.
A great way for agencies to do this is through a news blotter blog. Publishing a register of crimes and arrests in an area has traditionally been done in local newspapers and on websites, but social media is allowing many police officers on the scene to report the publicly available details of a crime for themselves. Essentially, law enforcement agents have the ability to become real-time, amateur reporters.
In the same vein, law enforcement agencies can use Twitter to post updates. It’s a great way to notify locals of areas that are blocked off, places to avoid, and issues to be aware of. Citizens themselves can also use Twitter to notify each other. In West Hollywood, the Twitter handle @WeHoDaily does a fantastic job of community engagement with timely information and photos. They have helped catch criminals, find lost dogs, and even notified people of traffic jams to avoid.
Aside from well-known platforms like Facebook and Twitter, consulting companies are developing very sophisticated software to help connect the public police online. The tip411 program developed by the CitizenObserver Corporation is marketed to law enforcement as a web-based notification toolset. The people at tip411 stress that social media empowers local communities to get involved without feeling like they’re putting themselves in the spotlight.
Anonymous text tip systems allow young people to provide information without fear of getting in trouble. The program allows tipsters to send information anonymously through a variety of means including “anonymous web chat, text tips and secure social media publishing."
Digital media is continually going to establish itself as a crucial resource, for even the most traditional institutions.

This post is part of the GOOD community's 50 Building Blocks of Citizenship—weekly steps to being an active, engaged global citizen. This week: Get to Know Your Local Police. Follow along and join the conversation at and on Twitter at #goodcitizen.

Image via tip411

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