Tools

Social media rapidly transforming how police solve crimes

By ANNA MEILER

UTICA, N.Y. (WKTV) --  When police pulled up to Club Toxic after midnight on Jan. 12, the scene had mostly cleared. But just moments before, a violent brawl of over 100 people had left at least four people suffering from stab wounds and thrown stools.

"For us, a lot of times you are flying blind when you get these cases," said Sgt. Steve Hauck of the Utica Police Department. "You see the end result and you've got to put the puzzle together backwards."

With little information, police reached out to the public for help. But, what cracked the case is social media.

"Low and behold a video pops up on YouTube of the entire assault. We were able to identify and make arrests based on that information being out there," said Sgt. Hauck.

It's just one example of how the landscape of law enforcement is rapidly transforming.

For many, many years it was less sharing with the public about what it is we do for fear of ruining cases and jeopardizing things. But I think what everybody realizes is with budget crunches out there and the inability to really have as many officers as we need and like, that we use the public more to help us than maybe we ever did before. And how do you reach them? How do you reach the public?" said Sgt. Hauck.

The answer is Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram and YouTube.

"Your ability to broadcast live your experience with something and include pictures and video of it is a total new innovation in our society and the same way that it benefits the average user it also benefits law enforcement investigations," said Anthony Martino, director of the Northeast Cyber Forensics Center at Utica College.

Sgt. Hauck manages social media for the Utica Police Department and since joining the force in 1995 has seen his job transform more than he could ever imagine.

"Since 2010 we've done over 50 arrests directly related to using Facebook and social media to identify people that we had no information on," he said.

At the forensics center at Utica College, they're working on some of the recent homicides in the area. When trying to crack these cases, the first place they go is social media.

"A lot of the social media plays in the more serious crimes. I mentioned homicides. That becomes huge. Immediately, who knows who? And how do you find out who knows who? You go to their Facebook, you go to their Twitter, you go to whatever else they have," said Martino.

But, social media can be a double-edged sword. Not all the information out there is true and sometimes leads police on wild goose chases. But, despite the pitfalls of monitoring comments on Facebook, following false leads and weeding through overloads of information, police aren't turning back from this new tool.

"Even if that little bit of information stops one person or protects one person, it's worth putting it out there," said Sgt. Hauck.

Facebook is the number one tool used in investigations, but in five years it will likely be a platform that isn't even invented yet and the use of social media is expected to become even more integral in solving crimes.

"The world is evolving and it's evolving very quickly. Communities are changing, just about everything about our society is being impacted by technology. If law enforcement is not part of that evolution they're going to be left behind," said Martino.

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