North Jersey police team up with social media

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Police officers are increasingly turning to Facebook and other social media during an investigation and to communicate with the people they protect.

Lodi Police Chief Vincent Caruso checking the police department’s Facebook page. The social media site is a vital communications toll for the department.

Lodi Police Chief Vincent Caruso checking the police department’s Facebook page. The social media site is a vital communications toll for the department.

Englewood and other departments use it in their juvenile divisions. Lodi looked to Facebook when officials needed to warn residents of street closings during Hurricane Irene, and Ringwood police found it helpful during a recent car accident investigation.

Police more frequently are employing Facebook to uncover evidence of a crime, distribute information to the public or check out a suspect’s alibi, said Jon Shane, a professor of police policy and practice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Facebook recently helped authorities during emergencies and police investigations in North Jersey and internationally:

Lodi directed concerned residents to its Facebook page, hoping to give out important flooding information during Hurricane Irene.
Police in Ringwood discovered a teen charged in a car crash had come from a hangout that gained fame on Facebook and YouTube.
Georgia police reached out to a suspect in a cop killing through Facebook, urging him to turn himself in.
Upset Vancouver residents posted photos on Facebook hoping to help police during riots after the Stanley Cup finals.

“In the past, there were always certain things you would always check and do in an investigation,” Shane said. “The Internet is now one of them.”

When Lodi was besieged by flooding from Hurricane Irene, the police department directed concerned residents to its Facebook page, hoping to cut down on calls into dispatchers handling emergencies. Police Chief Vincent Caruso posted alerts and answered residents’ questions, often within minutes.

Before the storm, the department had 76 people who had “liked” its Facebook page. Afterward, 574 had joined and the department saw a huge leap to more than 60,000 page views, Caruso said.

“People started asking questions, and I kept answering them,” he said. “If you want to talk to your residents, you have to use social media. … If you want to reach them, that’s where you have to reach them.”

Lodi also received anonymous tips through a link on the department’s Facebook page, including one that netted a crack cocaine distribution arrest. Caruso believes people are more likely to give police anonymous tips through the department’s page because no phone numbers or e-mail addresses are attached to the tips.

Lodi police want to use Facebook to warn people about crime trends, such as car burglaries, or to post suspects’ descriptions to enlist the public’s help.

“Some communities may not want everything out there, but we’re very transparent, getting everything out for residents to protect them,” Caruso said.

In Englewood a few years ago, investigators came across a Facebook photo of a 9-year-old boy dressed in gang colors posing with his father’s handgun, prompting an investigation that revealed both he and an older brother may have affiliations. The police department’s juvenile detective bureau checks the social media sites as a matter of routine, checking for such photos and tips.

Police Chief Arthur O’Keefe likened it to an officer patrolling a beat, but in this case, it’s a cyber beat. Detectives will try to befriend a troubled child on Facebook, sometimes using a fictitious account, or other kids will show police Facebook pages of children who may be falling under bad influences, O’Keefe said.

“It’s a preventative thing to make sure kids don’t fall into trouble,” O’Keefe said. “It gives officers some insight into the conduct of a student who one year may be successful and another year problematic or troubled.”

More and more, police are turning to social media during investigations, said Nancy Kolb, senior program manager for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Recently, Georgia police reached out to a cop-killer suspect through Facebook, urging him to turn himself in.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, people rioted after the Canucks lost to Boston in the Stanley Cup finals, and upset residents posted photos and identities of rioters on Facebook in the hopes of helping the police there.

Investigators look at a missing person’s Facebook postings to see if they indicate whether the person was intending on going somewhere or to find people who may know something about their whereabouts. Some people have posted descriptions of themselves doing something criminal or have posted photos of themselves flashing gang signs, giving investigators pertinent information, Kolb said.

But authorities’ access to social media sites is restricted by a user’s privacy settings.

“Your access to Facebook is limited,” said Shane, the John Jay College professor who also worked at the Newark Police Department for 16 years. “Beyond that, you need a warrant.”

Investigators can develop a lot of leads on the Internet without a warrant, but having one gives them more access, Shane said. Joseph Pollini, the deputy chairman for the law, police science and criminal justice administration department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said warrants in such cases are similar to eavesdropping warrants.

Facebook works with law enforcement officials to the extent required by law, according to information on the site’s privacy policy page.

“We may disclose information pursuant to subpoenas, court orders, or other requests (including criminal and civil matters) if we have a good-faith belief that the response is required by law,” the page says.

Even with some limitations, social media sites offer law enforcement agencies more investigative tools as more and more people use them.

“It’s a more popular tool in the last five years,” said Pollini, who is also a 33-year veteran and former commander of the cold case homicide squad for the New York Police Department. “Due to its popularity, it becomes a greater tool for police to further their investigations.”

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