MORRIS – It was April 2010 when Morris Police Chief Brent Dite first realized the investigative power of Facebook.
The Chase Bank in Morris had just been robbed. Within a few hours of the crime, Dite was posting still photos of the suspect – obtained through surveillance video – on the department’s social media page.
The photo was shared, liked and reposted until colleagues, neighbors, classmates and anyone else who recognized the nameless suspect began making phone calls to the police department.
“In that instance, we had so many leads coming in we felt we had the offender identified in just a few hours,” Dite said.
Morris Police Department is not an anomaly. Policing in the 21st century, for several local and national departments, means using social media in solving criminal investigations.
“Social media, at this point, is such a huge part of what we do,” Coal City Police Chief Tom Best said. “It’s become one of those things we use on a very regular basis.”
A study conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police Center for Social Media showed that social media aided in solving crimes for 80 percent of the police departments surveyed.
Dite said since the Morris page was created in 2009, it has generated several tips, some of which have led to concrete arrests. Most recently, Morris police used social media to help identify a suspect in the armed robbery of Le Mouton Rouge in downtown Morris last month.
Before Facebook, disseminating information to generate leads was a more odious task, Dite said.
“The only way we could distribute that information was through fliers or media sources like the newspaper,” Dite said. “It took much, much longer.”
Dite said at a crime scene, police officers typically knock on doors, gathering as much information about the incident as possible and spending hours interviewing neighbors, friends and witnesses.
It’s a policing technique known as “canvassing” and Facebook has taken it to a entirely new level. What used to take a team of officers hours can now be accomplished with a few mouse clicks.
“Social media is just a bigger canvas,” Dite said. “We can reach thousands of people in just a few hours.”
But leads generated from Facebook posts are nothing more than clues and each one requires further vetting and investigation.
“Everybody wants to help, but we certainly would not, not follow through with anything,” Grundy County Sheriff Kevin Callahan said of Facebook tips.
Callahan said for his officers, social media profiles can also be a treasure trove of information on potential suspects.
Jennifer Beskid of the Maryland Police and Core Training Commissions facilitates a ‘Social Media 101’ class for police officers and knows just how much personal information is available online.
“Somebody who wants to find you has a lot of different ways to find you,” she said.
Aside from specialized search engines that will search personal information, Beskid shows officers Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media profiles that can be accessed through back-door methods.
“I think the younger generation who has grown up with this technology at their fingertips is a lot more careless with their information,” Beskid said.
She added that people who may think their profiles are set to private are still vulnerable as most privacy settings can still allow police to access photos, friendships and basic information.
For local police, Facebook is not just used in collecting clues and catching criminals – it also serves as a platform for public service announcements.
“We post a variety of information on there,” Dite said. “Anything we feel the public would need to know.”
Dite said the department is slowly mastering the use of Facebook, and is not interested in branching out to Twitter or other social media – yet.
“For a long time, I think social media was an untapped resource for a lot of law enforcement because we just didn’t understand it,” Best said. “In a few short years, it’s become a very useful tool.”