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By now, most law enforcement agencies have adopted social media. A survey from the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that 96 percent of police departments use social media. But social media is not just a tool for improving community relations. According to research from LexisNexis, 81 percent of law enforcement professionals use social media in investigations, and 73 percent say it can help solve cases more quickly.

However, the same study found that more than half of agencies don’t have a formal process for using social media in investigations. This despite the fact that officers are using Facebook, Twitter and other social media in a variety of cases:

  • Identifying or locating subjects
  • Monitoring the mood of large events or protests to anticipate violence and dispatch officers to keep the peace
  • Obtaining probable cause
  • Monitoring and intercepting drug and gang activity
  • Soliciting crime tips and alerting the public to missing people, stolen vehicles or suspects at large

As police departments develop policies to govern the use of new technologies, command staff need to lay out guidelines for using social media in investigations. Here are a few suggestions:

Define when use is authorized

Like any law enforcement practice, social media use in investigations should align with the mission and values of the agency. Social media can allow easy access to a wealth of information about people’s friendships, locations, opinions, political and religious views and more. But just like an officer could not search a house without a warrant, he or she should never collect social media information on someone without a defined public safety purpose for doing so.

Social media policies should clearly establish when, why and how officers should use social media in an investigation; the limitations of use; how they will be trained in effective use; and who they should report to in the process.

Establish how to collect and store information

Just like any other intelligence information, information gathered from social media has to be cataloged and stored. This should include electronic, and print archives as social media posts can easily be removed from a suspect’s account. Social media policies should lay out how and where officers should store the information, who has access to the files, and how long the department should retain the information.

Train officers on how to verify information

Information from social media can be misleading, so policies should include steps to verify sources. This can include suspect confessions, witness statements, IP authentication or account security information to prove the suspect was the one posting from the account.

Determine when officers should go undercover

Creating a fake account to establish contact with a suspect should be a last resort. Policies should establish when it’s appropriate, who can do it, what permissions they need to obtain, how they should document the activity and how the department will review and audit the process.

Social media is an increasingly popular and legitimate investigation tool. Law enforcement departments need policies to govern it just like any other aspect of police work. With the right guidelines in place, social media can help officers track down criminals and solve cases quickly.