15 Ways Cops Use Your Favorite Social Media Platforms

The real crime here is that Jack can't tweet.

Trick or Tweet

It’s not just your new media pals and ranting uncles constantly scouring social media – a 2014 Lexis-Nexis study reports that 81% of all U.S. law enforcement professionals actively use social media in investigations. From collecting evidence to identifying the whereabouts of criminals, cops around the country (and world) are finding ways to utilize just about every social media platform in existence. Sometimes, they have to get very, very creative.

San Francisco Police Officer Eduard Ochoa doesn’t simply walk a neighborhood beat; he patrols Instagram. Ochoa recently identified a 17-year-old seen toting guns on Instagram as a wanted felon on probation, and SFPD detained the minor soon after.

Last year, 30-year-old Jeremy Clayton posted a picture on Instagram showing him flashing a middle finger at a South Carolina sheriff’s department’s webpage while holding a joint. Sheriff Leon Lott responded by sending his Drug Suppression Team to go undercover and buy pot from Clayton on three separate occasions. He was then arrested.

Showcasing nefarious deeds on a private account may lead to trouble, too – last December, a New Jersey court ruled police officers could legally create fake accounts to friend request users and access private accounts. The ruling came down after busted jewel thief Daniel Gatson challenged the FBI’s methods, proving little good can come from connecting with cops on Instagram – except for those who live in Iceland. Reykjavik’s Metropolitan Police Instagram account quite literally features cops holding cotton candy, ice cream, and puppies. Iceland’s infinitesimal violent crime rate might have something to do with that.

Twitter and Facebook
We can all support a good live-tweet of, say, an awards show or a Super Bowl. When Maryland’s Prince George Police Department announced they would be live tweeting prostitution stings last April, outrage ensued – The Verge called the strategy “shaming tactics”. The police department went through with the stings, but produced no arrests.

It was far from the first instance of Twitter as a medium for police finger wagging – last September, California’s Santa Cruz Police Department sent out an oddly cheery Tweet and Vine after arresting a suspect for heroin possession. In late 2013, Dallas Police Chief David O. Brown took to Twitter to announce and explain the firings of five officers and a 911 call operator, citing reasons like “public intoxication” and “driving under the influence and not reporting his arrest to his supervisor.”

For the NYPD, however, the shaming came from without. After prompting Twitter and Facebook users to use the hashtag #myNYPD to show pictures with NYPD officers, scores of users overwhelmed the hashtag with images of police brutality.

The NYPD’s use of social media sparked controversy last December as well, when The Verge told the story of Harlem native Jelani Henry, who was arrested for gang affiliation based solely on Facebook pictures and likes that connected him with known members of the neighborhood’s Goodfellas gang. Henry then spent two years in one of Rikers Island’s most violent facilities began live-streaming traffic stops on Periscope in an effort to be more transparent, though others argued the method felt more like public shaming. The Indian city of Benglaru, meanwhile, has asked citizens to Periscope crimes as they see them occurring, as part of a “community policing” strategy.

Stateside, law enforcement officials won’t have to dig too deep to find Periscope users offering themselves up – in April, Motherboard highlighted the wide range of drugs and destruction commonly chronicled on the nascent streaming app.

Snapchat, Tinder, and Pinterest
If you’re worried about your sultry Snapchats ending up in the hands of law enforcement, take solace in Snapchat’s transparency report, released in April. U.S. law enforcement only requested user information or images 375 times between last November and February, a tiny number compared to the 800 million snaps sent each month.

Though Tinder doesn’t seem fit for official police use, the dating app has produced at least a few instances of unsanctioned investigation. In December, San Francisco startup founder David Petersen created a profile featuring a security image of a woman he believed to be responsible for robbing his office. Two days later, another Tinder user emailed Petersen the woman’s identity, which he then turned over to police.

In August of last year, two California police officers were investigated for allegedly using a police database to screen Tinder matches. We cannot confirm whether the pair ever found love. Police departments across the country have, however, started using Pinterest to advertise lost and found items.