Law enforcement’s love-hate relationship with social media

-A A +A

Cops and courts examine pros, cons of online platform

By Rachel Christian

Social media has changed the way people communicate, share news and stay connected.

It has also had a surprising impact on how law enforcement officials solve crimes.

Last month, two Mount Vernon suspects were arrested in conjunction with three local church break-ins. There were less than 48 hours between when the first burglary report came in to the Posey County Sheriff’s Office and when the arrests were made.

Why was the police’s work so swift? It turns out that social media played a major role.

“Once members of the churches started posting about the break-ins on Facebook, a lot of folks in the community wanted to help,” said Posey County Deputy Sheriff Tom Latham, who assisted in the case. “They wanted the people who committed the crimes to be brought to justice.”

The information online prompted several citizens to call in helpful tips to the Sheriff’s Office. The tips – as well as good old fashion police and detective work – helped lead authorities straight to the suspected criminals.

Latham said he is glad social media had a positive impact, but noted that isn’t always the case.

“The relationship between social networking and law enforcement is like many things – it can be a blessing, and it can be a curse,” he said.

Leaking sensitive information

Latham said it is now common for victims of a burglary, robbery or theft to post information about the on-going investigation on Facebook. The victims do so to vent about the stressful incident, but in the process, they also end up sharing sensitive details that can hinder a case.

Law enforcement officials say that sharing things like how their home or car was broken into, as well as listing the specific items that were stolen, can actually make it more difficult for authorities to catch the culprit.

“If that post or information gets back to the criminal, they can ditch those items before we even get to them,” Latham said. “They can throw the tool they used during a forced entry into the Ohio River. Those are crucial pieces of evidence that we simply can’t trace back to them now.”

Another way residents can make themselves vulnerable is by posting specific dates they plan to spend on vacation.

About four years ago, the Posey County Sheriff’s Office arrested a woman for committing multiple burglaries. Authorities discovered that the woman had been “friending” Mount Vernon residents on Facebook and monitored their news feeds to see when they went on vacation. When no one was home, she broke in at night and stole various items from the residences. A list was later discovered of the homes she had already hit along with the names of other potential victims and dates of their upcoming trips.

To help prevent these incidents, law enforcement officers suggest that individuals wait to post pictures and statuses about their getaway until they return home. They also caution against sharing the exact day of departure with anyone besides trusted friends and family.

Latham suggested having one of those friends or family members check up on the home, and make it appear like things are following routine.

When criminals catch themselves

Criminals can use social media to their advantage, but they can incriminate themselves, too.

Latham said many people might not realize that things they share online can be used to build a case against them, and even become evidence if the case goes to court.

“We’ve had convicted felons post pictures of themselves holding guns, and teenagers driving past cops while smoking a joint,” the deputy said. “There have been people holding stolen items, and they brag about how they obtained those items.”

The false sense of security that comes with sharing information behind a screen is just that – an illusion. More frequently, law enforcement officers and courts in Indiana are using these items as evidence.

In 2014, the Indiana Court of Appeals broadened the admissibility of social media content as evidence in the case of Wilson v. State of Indiana. If a witness can verify that the suspect posted an incriminating photo, video or status, those things can be used as a piece of supporting evidence in the case.

The job of both police and prosecutors can be simplified when the criminals help catch themselves.

“Who knows why these people share the things they do,” Latham said. “But to a certain degree, I have to thank them. They honestly just helped make my job a little easier.”