Three best practices for using social media for crime prevention and criminal investigations

A recent Accenture citizen pulse survey on policing found that citizens believe police forces still rely a lot on traditional media sources – TV news, newspapers and radio. Of the citizens polled though, 72 percent believe social media can aid in investigations and prosecution, 53 percent believe it can improve police services and 47 percent see it as a tool for preventing crime.

And citizens aren’t the only ones who believe social is a valuable tool for law enforcement. In the European Commission’s Composite Project report, police officers said that they often find information on social media that would’ve been difficult and time consuming to find elsewhere. Sometimes the information may not even be available anywhere else.


Social media can provide the answers to ...

  • Who said what?
  • About what?
  • Who are they influencing?
  • What might happen next?

The report is based on “in-depth analyses, interviews and group discussions with IT experts and officers representing the police forces of thirteen European countries.” In the report, you’ll find three best practices for using social media in law enforcement:

  1. Move beyond the special-teams approach and educate all officers in simple social media investigative methods.
  2. Take your social strategy to the next level – talk to the community and give them a venue to talk back.
  3. Apply analytics to identify suspicious activity and incriminating information.

Build a social investigation machine

The commission’s research found that many police forces are already using social media - reactively. For instance, most forces routinely examine a suspect’s public social media activity for information that can be used in criminal investigations. This public information helps round out a subject’s profile and fill holes in the investigation. For access to non-public information - private messages, emails, IP addresses - police can often contact the social media provider. (When the provider is based in another country, access may take more time.)

Become a community partner

Establishing a social presence can deliver significant benefits at low cost. For instance, it’s especially useful for pushing information during periods of crisis (when traditional IT systems often become overloaded). It’s also a good way to engage the public in investigations. And the IACP Center for Social Media, a US organization established to support forces in their adoption of social, says social is great way to build relationships with the community – a way to show the community that police officers are people who love and support their communities.

Find the hidden nuggets

There’s a downside to monitoring social media though - the vast majority of social media traffic is just noise. What forces need is a way to sift through the noise to uncover criminal activity and spot concerns in the community before they become problems. This is where advanced analytics comes in:

  • Specialized text analytics uses natural language processing to understand meaning in multiple languages and decipher the ‘text language’ that is rapidly evolving in social media speak.
  • Social media analytics highlights key topics and uncovers relationships between people, objects and locations of interest.
  • Social network analysis identifies the people involved, their human networks and the ring leaders.
  • Ontology management highlights communalities and relationships between different words and terms, identifying common references from multiple sources.
  • Sentiment analysis uncovers changing attitudes, highlighting positive negative and neutral opinions that may indicate a move from words to action.

It’s the powerful combination of these analytic technologies that lets intelligence professionals effectively use social media to get answers to the key questions - Who said what? About what? Who are they influencing? What might happen next?

In the end, a combination of these three best practices can help improve police efficiency, increase mutual trust and facilitate increased communication and a closer connection with the public – despite shrinking budgets.

three white blocks

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Social media for the public good?

Of the citizens polled in a recent Accenture survey ...

  • 72% believe social media can aid in investigations and prosecution.
  • 53% believe it can improve police services.
  • 47% see it as a tool for preventing crime.

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