December 4, 2011

How Social Media is Changing Law Enforcement

THERE'S A scene in the 1990 movie Dances With Wolves in which Kevin Costner's character Lt. Dunbar is traveling with a teamster by horse and wagon to his new post on the Western frontier. They come across a skeleton lying in the grass - an arrow sticking up through its ribs - and the teamster says, "Somebody back East is saying' why don't he write?"

Today, public safety is a bit more sophisticated and methods of communication much faster. Law enforcement tools have evolved from wanted posters to police radio, patrol cars and social networks, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Community policing today has also expanded through social networking to locate missing children, alert neighbors of suspicious activity and even inform the public about crimes committed in their neighborhoods.

But social networking is a tool that cuts both ways. Flash mobs organized online in Philadelphia swarmed stores to shoplift and attack pedestrians; pedophiles use social networking platforms to share photos and video; and terrorists recruit members and plan attacks via these tools.

Even the courts have been affected. Jurors have disregarded instructions and have conducted online research, shared their opinions on Twitter from the jury box, and even posted biased comments on their Facebook pages.

From a 140-character tweet to a 56 MB video clip, social networking is a force that cannot be denied or ignored. The report that follows is intended to assist law enforcement officials in embracing and understanding this phenomenon.

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