How police departments use tweets and status updates to fight crime

By Iman Sheikh - Published on April 16, 2015
Toronto Police Service's Twitter page
Toronto Police Service's Twitter feed

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Last week, a Toronto police officer gained notoriety for his Instagram account. Const. Garvin Khan, a 15-year veteran of the Toronto Police Service, had posted photos to the photo-sharing app that appeared to be glorifying violence.

He had shots of himself proudly posing with guns, including one of his handgun accompanied by the caption, “For fifteen years this has been by my side. I have taken it to the darkest regions & it has brought me back alive. It has witnessed the evils of man & stood strong beside the good as they prevailed. Always faithful. IN GLOCK WE TRUST.”

In another, Khan grins while posing with a battering ram to break down a door. The caption: “Search warrant!”

But while Khan isn’t the only example of a police officer causing a public relations problem in the digital space, the larger movement in law enforcement is to use social media to help solve crimes and engage with the local citizenry.

Case in point: a stabbing at the Salsa on St. Clair Festival in 2013. After two men were sent to hospital with life-threatening stomach wounds, a series of tweets helped Toronto police catch the assailant. 

According to Const. Laurie McCann of Toronto Police Service (TPS), the incident was resolved through vigilant Twitter monitoring.

“We figured out a lot of information about the victim,” she said. “A lot of witnesses were found through Twitter.”

TPS saw such a spike in crime prevention and community engagement through social media they created the Toronto Police Operations Centre in June 2014, which now monitors social media channels 24-hours a day, seven days a week.

“Even back in 2009, we had [celebrity gossip columnist] Perez Hilton tweeting at Toronto police asking for help when he was assaulted,” Const. McCann said. “It took us a while to get to him, as we weren’t monitoring social media all the time in 2009. Now it’s another tool on our belt that we didn’t have before.”

U.S.-based social media strategist Lauri Stevens, creator of the annual SMILE (Social Media, the Internet and Law Enforcement) conference, encourages police forces across North America to employ social monitoring programs made specifically for law enforcement. Two popular software platforms are developed in Canada: the Hamilton-based Media Sonar (used by TPS) and LifeRaft, headquartered in Halifax, N.S. These programs improve efficiency in various ways, such as helping police differentiate between hoaxes and actual threats.

“The monitoring software isn’t just about eavesdropping,” Stevens said. “It doesn’t work like that. Most of them are based on calculating algorithms. If you said, ‘That guy is the bomb,’ or ‘I’m gonna have a bomb,’ they can see by context that one thing may or may not be a threat.”

Still, comprehensive training on social media platforms should be mandatory for all law enforcement officers, said Stevens. Examples of dubious judgement on social media, such as the Khan example, are common.

“Every day some cop posts something stupid on social media,” she said. “I think it’s a combination of ‘I have first amendment rights, I can post anything I want’ and just not realizing how much people see it. They’re not realizing the special position they’re in as a police officer.”

According to Const. McCann, TPS has a very good track record when it comes to responsible social media practices.

“Garvin is a one-off,” she said. “We’ve been doing this for five years and we’ve never really had a major incident that has made the papers other than this one. Honestly, when you think about the number of officers we have, I think that’s a pretty good ratio.”

Twitter isn’t the only social media avenue in use by police departments in the province. The Ottawa Police Service Robbery Unit posts surveillance images on Pinterest in the hopes the public will help identify people caught on camera committing thefts.

“What we’ve started doing a little more of recently is getting away from still images and posting the [surveillance] video itself on YouTube,” added Staff Sgt. Mike Haarbosch, who works in the unit.

Police also use social media for more than catching criminals. April 8 was the Day of Pink, when people around the world wear pink to draw awareness to discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. On that day, Toronto police officer Luke Watson dyed his hair pink and posted a photo on Twitter, pledging he would keep his hair pink for a week if the image was retweeted 1,000 times. To date, the photo has been retweeted over 8,500 times.

“Our Day of Pink with Luke Watson and his hair became a worldwide phenomenon,” Const. McCann said.

Additionally, an increasing number of calls for help regarding suicide have reached TPS through Twitter and Facebook.

“It is essentially a radio call, but it’s just coming through our social media site,” Const. McCann said. “Kids and adults turn to social media when they trust an officer. I had one where she said I’ve spoken to you before and I’m reaching out to you for help. I got her the help she needed. She was on the verge of killing herself.”

According to Stevens, this year’s SMILE Conference in Phoenix, AZ will be the largest since its inception in 2010, with approximately 150 police departments in attendance.

“I think police are realizing the depths possible with social media,” she said. “It’s not just fluff, which I think was the perception in the beginning.” 

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