By: Cherie Ching
Police departments are taking advantage of the convenience and efficiency of social media, such as Twitter, to allow residents to participate in locking down on nonemergency crimes. With an increased reliance on social media, police anticipate more citizens to report nonemergency crimes and prospective crimes, however, risking the safety of the participants through an open and public platform.
The average person effortlessly juggles two, three or even four social media platforms at a time, whether it is to display a favorite dish at a restaurant, announce a wedding engagement, or advertise a house for sale. However, police departments have taken social media to the next level by expanding their reliance on communities for the purposes of law enforcement. With the recent police encounters around the nation, there have been growing concerns for transparency and accountability in law enforcement. By including residents in the process of combating lesser crimes through an intimate social media platform, residents may feel more involved and have an increased confidence in the system. Instead of anti-police comments and expressions of dissatisfaction posted to the police department “walls,” police officials want to engage the public in finding solutions. According to a recent New York Times article, from a business perspective, this attempt is comparable to managing customer complaints and soliciting tips and concerns from customers.
In this article, police officials in New York’s 109th Precinct will attempt to use social media, such as Twitter, WeChat, and IdeaScale to encourage those living in these neighborhoods to report smaller issues, such as noise complaints, graffiti, and traffic concerns. Like many communities around the nation, police are implementing the “broken windows” approach to combat quality-of-life crimes, in order to prevent more serious crimes from occurring. Although the process of posting a comment or complaint to someone’s wall is seemingly second-nature and less intimidating than calling the police, the person posting is essentially announcing their complaint on a public forum for everyone to see. Without knowing how to post their complaint, an innocent poster may become a potential witness or suspect simply for posting their concerns.
This attempt at crowdsourcing also creates a risk of defamation, unintended admissions, and/or exposure of confidential information. Depending on how careful police departments monitor postings, private and sensitive information may become public from one person’s careless posting. Or worst yet, a person may post an offensive complaint about their next-door neighbor, which may cause a serious conflict of interest and safety. Many cities already have active police department Twitter accounts in place, commonly for the purposes of announcing robberies in real-time, traffic updates, and details of suspect descriptions when a search is in place. However, allowing residents to post to the official page, in a sort of official capacity places a burden on the residents to make proper and legitimate complaints, even if it is simply a concern for public safety. This aspect of assisting law enforcement may deter participation from this program, rather than encouraging participation.
Furthermore, Tweets and public postings are subject to becoming evidence in the event that the nonemergency conduct elevates to a civil or criminal offense. According to the Federal Rules of Evidence, electronically stored information (ESI) could be treated the same as hard evidence, unbeknownst to the average social media user. Although the electronic posting would have to survive admissibility tests, such as relevance, prejudice, and hearsay, the resident posting the complaint is at risk to becoming more involved in a criminal activity than anticipated. Before implementing a public platform for reporting crimes, police officials may want to address these issues and seriously consider the safety of their potential participants before taking advantage of the benefits of their participation.
Cherie is a 2L Staff Member of the Journal of High Technology Law at Suffolk Law. She enjoys dancing, aerobics, and running. Her fitness goal is to complete the Iron Man in Hawai`i.