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Social Media Assists Law Enforcement in Catching Criminals and Saving Lives

The Social Media rage has changed the way a lot of us share our information. Birthdays, the birth of a new child, pictures of our children growing up and even the passing of a loved one are just a few of the things that people put out there for their close friends and family to see and comment upon. In essence a person's entire cradle to grave existence on the planet can be documented on social media sites.

But how much privacy do people really have when they share their lives or comment about others?

Most of us log into our Facebook page and assume that what we write is only viewed by our close friends and relatives which we've let into our digital life by accepting them as friends at some point in the past. Other social media sites meet the same premise.

But depending on a person's privacy settings, a lot more people may be viewing what individuals write, the pictures and videos they post, and the comments they share on their page, and other person's pages. When a user chooses the option of allowing "friends of friends" when it comes to who gets to see your postings, that person may be opening up themself to thousands of other users whether it's realized it or not.

And then of course, law enforcement can view individual's postings by use of subpoena or court order. They can also pose as a friend, or a friend of a friend, and once their friendship request is accepted the results can fit the ramifications of the myth of permitting a vampire to enter your house.  

Most of us are very lax in reading the terms and conditions as well as the help files provided by online vendors and other Websites that we use, or sign up for on a regular basis. Using Facebook as an example, within their help files you'll find the topic "Law Enforcement & Third-Party Matters". There are many sub-categories that deal with this topic including "How does Facebook work with law enforcement?" Simply stated, Facebook's policies are spelled out, demonstrating that the short answer is "where appropriate and to the extent required by law to ensure the safety of the people who use" their service is required", or there is a "good faith belief that the response is required by law." Additionally, as stated above, management makes it clear that they "may disclose information pursuant to subpoenas, court orders or other requests" by law enforcement which may not only include "criminal matters" but in some cases "civil matters" as well.

There are a multitude of cases where law enforcement and the courts were able to use social media as a tool not only for catching criminals that have committed crimes but also preventing crimes from occurring before they happen. Additionally they've used information that's been accumulated to assist with convictions in criminal cases.

Listed below are a few divergent examples of how authorities intervened to make arrests, identify potential suspects and even assist users in distress with the use of these services.

In Steubenville, Ohio, two high school football players were accused of raping a 16-year-old female last August. One of the attackers recorded the offense and posted a video of it on a social media site. The female minor who was assaulted appeared clearly intoxicated in the recording. The video, in addition to posted comments relating to it with the players and by others became critical evidence when the case went to trial.

Each of the young men were found delinquent of the rape and directed to a juvenile detention facility. The one that posted the video received a minimum of two years, and the other youth involved received a minimum of one year for his participation in the crime.

This past February, in Pennsylvania, a senior from a Scranton Prep School was charged with making threats that were terroristic in nature after he posted a message on his Twitter feed claiming he was going to blow up two schools in the area. After an investigation by authorities was initiated, no explosive devices were found but the young man's online reputation was tarnished and he has come under close scrutiny by law enforcement.

In another case in Pennsylvania, Dylan Michael Ostrowski, 21, was given a sentence of to up to 9 years in prison for the stabbing death of 18-year-old Lawrence Atkinson. The two men taunted each other on Facebook and arranged to meet at a local park to arrange a physical fight that resulted in Atkinson's death. At Ostrowski's sentencing hearing Lackawanna County Judge Robert Mazzoni pointed out that if the men had not been using the social media site as a forum to antagonize each other, the stabbing that was spurred on by it would never have occurred, and the young man that was killed would probably still be alive.

The Pennsylvania online publication notes that "in Northeast Pennsylvania, local law enforcement and the courts are turning to social media to help get inside the minds of criminals… Investigators can now scour a vast storehouse of information about people, often without their knowledge, because of the wide use of popular social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter."

Hank Zimmer, a South Abington Township police officer calls the practice of scouring the social media sites "clue surfing". "It's another tool in the toolbox," Patrolman Zimmer said. When using standard investigative techniques, "If I run into a dead end, I'll immediately go onto the computer and see what I can find."

According to Joseph Mecca, the director of the Lackawanna County adult probation and parole office, their probation officers scrutinize the profiles of individuals who are on probation and/or supervised release that they find on these sites, checking to see if they post anything that may violate any of the conditions that have been imposed by the court.

The importance of making sure that young adult minors who are users of these social media sites are properly instructed of the possible dangers of them are spelled out in the next three examples.

Before Facebook gained its massive popularity, now boasting over half a billion users, Myspace was the most popular of the newly conceived services of its kind.

In New Jersey, in 2009, a 14-year-old girl was arrested by the Passaic County Sheriff's Office after she posted a multitude of very explicit nude pictures of herself on her Myspace page. She was accused of child pornography and a conviction of these charges could force her to register as a sex offender in the national database.

In Cypress Texas, about 30 miles northwest of Houston a shooting was reported at an 18th birthday party at a suburban home in that area. The girl who threw the party said she posted her name and address on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Over 100 people showed up of whom most she didn't know.

During the party, gunfire broke out. Two persons were killed and 19 were injured. Authorities arrested Willie Young, 21, and Randy Stewart, 18. Young was charged with deadly conduct and Stewart, was charged with aggravated assault. At the time of the writing of this article, both are still in custody, according to Harris County sheriff's officials.  

In another case in Texas, Deer Park police arrested a 15-year-old boy who allegedly made several threats on Twitter using an anonymous account. The tweets that he posted read: "My name starts with an a I have been bullied for 5 years and I'm taking matters in to my own hands [sic] ... But I'm bringing a gun to school and killing anyone who has ever [expletive] with me then taking my own life [sic]... Nothing will stop me so you might not wanna come to school tomarrow [sic]"

With the help of Twitter, police began an investigation and the student, whose name is being withheld due to his age, was arrested and charged with exhibition of a firearm. A complete search of the young man's home was conducted by police and no other weapons were found.

But besides the horror stories that are posted above, authorities have used social media services to save lives in other ways.

Just last week a New Jersey teenager posted a picture of the George Washington Bridge on his Facebook page with the comment below it reading, "I'm thinking of jumping," according to the NY Daily News. One of his "Facebook friends" saw the post and made a call to local police advising them that he thought the teen might be serious about the threat. The Port Authority police were then notified and pictures of the boy were circulated to officers that were on patrol at the bridge's location. At that point a quick-thinking Port Authority Police lieutenant messaged the youth via his Facebook account, leaving his own phone number for the disturbed boy to call, according to the NY Post. A few hours later, the troubled teenager called the lieutenant from a bus on his way to the bridge. He confessed to the officer that he was "having housing issues" and was basically close to becoming homeless. The lieutenant was able to convince him to get off the bus and turn himself over to authorities, who took him to a hospital for evaluation.  

A story previously detailed on my blog tells the story of a man "who posted a shocking image of his murdered wife on his Facebook page." To read this article, click here

Social Media is here to stay and new opportunities in technology that will indeed assist law enforcement and the courts are presented by its inception. With these new procedures and responsibilities comes a barrage of new challenges.

As of now, not many local police departments comprehend the depth and value of what social media brings, or has put together a comprehensive strategy on how to use it; at least not yet.

[sic]: added immediately after a quoted word or phrase (or a longer piece of text), indicates that the quotation has been transcribed exactly as found in the original source, complete with any erroneous spelling or other nonstandard presentation.