Digital Underground: Cyber Thugs, Police, and Virtual Investigations (6 of 8)

Everyone has heard the saying: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Like any other new concept, some police officers are against the idea of using social media sites to investigate crimes. These officers probably insist that all it takes is “Good old fashion police work” to solve crimes. I can just image the police officer, leaning back in his chair with is feet propped up on the desk saying, “We don’t need all that newfangled stuff to solve our cases, Our skills are fine right where they are.”[1] They cling to their “good old fashioned police work” theory as if these tactics should be all that was necessary to solve the crime.[2]

Some people are just stuck in their ways. This probably happens in almost every occupation. First, telephones (although, I don’t think anyone rejected this invention). Then came computers in the workplace. Police didn’t use computers until the 1990’s.[4] Now almost every squad car has a laptop. Hopefully police officers will come around, just like they have with other technology. Of course, there is always someone who isn’t ready to let go of the past and embrace change. I am sure many probably think it’s just a fad and are waiting for it to blow over so they can get back to their “Good old fashioned police work.”

Let’s face it: “It’s policing in the 21st century: where community outreach comes on Twitter, surveillance tape footage is posted on YouTube and gangs are infiltrated on Facebook.”[5] While some police officers say social media sites are “kind of an expanded version of the good work they would do on the beat.”[6] Others maintain, its still not a replacement to old-fashioned analog investigations. “Traditional police work is the way to solve most of these crimes.”[7]

Even though some officers may not be exactly thrilled about using social media to investigate crimes, others have jumped on the bandwagon. Many police departments use social media as a tool for building relationships and communication with the public.[8] However, new opportunities in technology, of course, come with a slew of new challenges.[9] Nevertheless, some police officers even seem to enjoy using social media sites, perhaps a little too much. Criminals aren’t the only people over-sharing on social media sites. Sadly, some police officers have fallen into the social media trap, and “individual officers can make bad decisions in public forums.”[10] Some officer’s personal pages have even gotten them into trouble.

In 2009, the Indiana State Police investigated an officer for posting compromising photos and statements on his Facebook page.[11] The Facebook page revealed images of the officer with a “.357 Magnum pointed at his head, drinking what he described as lots of beer with his buddies and lewd horseplay.”[12]

IMPD police officer pointing a gun at his friend’s head. The friend is a ISP police officer.

Officer Facebook

Friend Guns Gaceook

The officer also used his Facebook page to brag of heavy drinking and posted pictures of a crash involving his ISP cruiser.[13]

“Oops! Where did my front end go?” he wrote when he posted the picture. Later, while discussing the accident with his friends on Facebook, [the officer] added, “kiss my butt, Not my fault.:)”[14]

And shared his thoughts about an incident in California where police officers punched a homeless man during an arrest.[15] He wrote:

“Let someone, homeless or not, try and stab me with a pen, knife, spoon, etc, not only will he fail, he’ll probably end up shot. These people should have died when they were young anyway, i’m just doing them a favor.” [sic][16]

His actions prompted Indiana State Police to draft a Standard Operating Procedure for all department staff regarding posting information on personal web pages such as Facebook.[17]

Police say this situation should provide a powerful reminder to all of us: don’t post anything on the Internet that you would not want to see on the news.[18] Police officers must take care that their actions and statements, whether on duty or off duty, do not reflect negatively upon the police department. Police officers must not convey the image or impression that they will be influenced in the performance of their official duties by personal disagreements on political matters.[18]

Unfortunately, this officer didn’t get the memo. The officer got in trouble after sending texts and Facebook messages intimidating a citizen about which selectman’s candidate to vote for in the town election.[19] The officer wrote:

“Don’t ever talk to us again.”  “Wow you are dead to the Chief even now u better follow the law to the T as long as ur in this town.”

Although, the messages were sent to the police officer’s “best friend,” the friend filed a complaint, saying that the “officer had spoken out of character in the texts and messages and left the complainant feeling “intimidated and afraid.”[20] However,[21] the officer said it was just “good-natured ribbing.” “There was no malicious intent behind any of these texts or online messages to each other and to this day I regret sending these messages.”[22]

A slippery slope… A police officer in Texas was investigated for posting inflammatory comments on a Facebook page.[23] A Florida beach officer was fired over Facebook comments about Trayvon Martin after George Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict.[24]A 911 operator was fired for violating the department’s social media policy after it was discovered that she had posted derogatory comments against African-Americans on her Facebook page.[25] A Tarrant County sheriff’s deputy was fired for posting rants on Facebook against Sheriff Dee Anderson and two other county employees after becoming frustrated that he lost his bid for Precinct 1 constable.[26]

According to a Boston-area media consultant for law enforcement, social networking sites can spell trouble.[27] The consultant warns officers using social media to visualize a wall separating their personal life from their career.[28] “The minute you put anything on your personal profile that says you’re an officer, you put a hole in that wall.”[29]

Sometimes, a social media policy just doesn’t do the trick. In Fort Worth, a concerned citizen alerted the local newspaper after reading offensive comments made by a Fort Worth police officer.

Fort Worth Police Department’s Social Media Policy

 Fort Worth Policy

The officer  “ranted against other commenters over some issues concerning President Barack Obama, attacking some as “retards,” saying Social Security is for “hood rats,” and telling one commenter, “[expletive] you wet back!”[30]

 Police Rant

A sample of the comments posted on a public Facebook community page earlier this month. Tim Fornash, a Fort Worth police officer, claims his account was hacked but said he was prohibited from commenting further.

Social media… got to love it.

[1] CHRISTA M. MILLER “Old Fashioned” Police Work in the 21st Century (AUGUST 6, 2013)

[2] Id.

[3] Eric P. Daigle, Social Networking Policies: Just Another Policy? The Police Chief vol. 77, no. 5, May 2010

[4] 1993
More than 90 percent of U.S. police departments serving a population of 50,000 or more are using computers. Many are using them for such relatively sophisticated applications as criminal investigations, budgeting, dispatch, and manpower allocation Police Technology Timeline Police

[5] Emily Siner, The Promises And Pitfalls Of Social Media — For Police All Tech Considered Tech, Culture, and Connection (September 22, 2013 5:40 AM)

[7] Id.

[8] DEANNA BOYD, Fort Worth Officer Under Investigation For Alleged Remarks On Facebook Star-Telegram (Saturday, Jul. 20, 2013) //

[10] Id.

[11] Bob Segall, Trooper In Trouble Over Facebook Photos 13 Investigates 25, 2009 1:24 AM)

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id

[20]Mary Ann Bragg, Facebook Messages Get Provincetown Policeman In Trouble Cape Cod Times  (June 11, 2013)

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id. Emily Siner, The Promises And Pitfalls Of Social Media — For Police All Tech Considered Tech, Culture, and Connection (September 22, 2013 5:40 AM)

[24] Emily Siner, The Promises And Pitfalls Of Social Media — For Police All Tech Considered Tech, Culture, and Connection (September 22, 2013 5:40 AM)

[26] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

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