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The Chicago Police Department incorporates social media as a new and innovative means to engage and educate the public, Sgt. Antoinette Ursitti of CPD News Affairs said. Right now, the CPD has more than 40,000 followers collectively on Facebook, Nixle, and Twitter.

Do you know who your online friends are? They could be the law

by Alexandra M. Schwappach
April 21, 2011

Who are your friends on Facebook?


One of them could be a police officer, and you might not even know it.


As social networking becomes more deep-rooted in our daily lives, more and more law enforcement agencies are using online media as a tool in their daily work. 


The benefits for law enforcement agencies are many, said Lauri Stevens, principal consultant for LAwS Communication, a Boston-based communications consulting firm. They include using social media for community outreach and putting a more friendly face on a police department. Sites like Facebook and Twitter, she said, often help police get the word out about something not covered in the news.


“Social networks allow police departments to notify the hard-to-reach or the impossible-to-reach,” Stevens said.


It can also help a police department seem more approachable.


“Many law enforcement agencies haven’t thought of themselves as a brand,” Stevens said. “But with these new tools, that is something they can build.”


Stevens estimates that close to 10 percent of the 18,000 U. S. law enforcement agencies are using social media such as Facebook, Myspace and Twitter in their work. Many of them are using them more extensively in investigations and to gather intelligence on suspects like gang members and pedophiles, she said.


There are limits, however, to how police officers can use social media.


“They can’t do anything illegal,” Stevens said. “But that isn’t to say that they are friending people while posing as someone who is not a police officer.”


In west suburban Naperville, the police department’s high-tech crime unit uses Facebook and Myspace on a regular basis to investigate illegal activity, said Community Affairs officer Sgt. Gregg Bell.  Though he could not reveal specific details, Bell said officers often have to assume an identity to find the information they need.


“They do what they have to do in order to be successful in their investigation,” he said.


Naperville police also use Twitter, primarily to send instant updates about things like road closures and traffic updates. But the department uses Facebook and Myspace as a major investigative tool for ongoing cases.


“We use those sites the most during runaway or missing person investigations,” he said. “With permission, we can look at who they spoke to last, where they were last, etc. It has proved successful on numerous occasions.”


People seeking a job with the police department should be especially careful about their Internet postings.  Several applicants for jobs with the Naperville Police Department have been rejected because the department found unsavory pictures or posts on their Facbeook profiles.  Even police officers themselves have been suspended or fired because of content they posted online.


“This social media,” Bell said. “It cuts both ways.”


Though all social media users should protect their online profiles,  police need to take extra safety precautions. Police need to be careful when identifying themselves as officers, Stevens said, especially when positing pictures of their family online. 


“Someone who wants to do harm to a law enforcement official can easily find them online and target them,” Stevens said.


Anyone using tweets, pictures and posts can be geo-located, which means that savvy computer users can find the exact location from which those pictures or messages were posted, she said.  So the same technology that police use during investigations can be used against them.  


On May 9-11 LAwS Communication will hold its third annual Social Media the Internet and Law Enforcement conference in Chicago. Designed for law enforcement professionals, it will focus on police safety on social networks.


Stevens urges police departments to create policies that deal specifically with online networking. 


“Police usually have a policy for everything they do, but they are just now figuring out how to write the policies for social media,” she said. “These policies need to be adapted or created from the get-go so the department doesn’t run into any legal problems.”