Crime

Facebook offers local agencies a new medium for police work

Nearly 10 years ago, a woman's body was found along Interstate 65 in Simpson County, and no one knew who she was.

The woman, who was 25 to 35 years old and had long, light reddish-brown hair, had been dead at least eight days when her body was found, and maybe as long as two months.

Now, state police are using Facebook.com in hopes of generating leads in the case.

Earlier this month, investigators posted photos of the rose tattoo on the woman's breast, two rings she was wearing and a reconstruction of her face on the Web site.

The photos are in an album titled "Did you know me? Have you ever seen these rings? Can you identify me?"

"There might be somebody out there that's searching for her," said Sgt. Todd Combs of Kentucky State Police Post 3 in Bowling Green. "These cases are just as important to us ... as any current case we're working."

A great number of police agencies are using Facebook, a social networking Web site that boasts 500 million users, as another tool for police work. In some cases, Facebook has provided investigators with the break they needed to finally close the books on an open investigation. Local agencies have used Facebook for everything from promoting the department and connecting with the public to setting up online stings and tracking down fugitives who are "dumb" enough to log on.

Last fall, a survey of law enforcement agencies around the country found that 81 percent are using social media, and 45 percent of those said the sites had helped them solve crimes, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police Center for Social Media.

Among agencies that aren't using social media, nearly 62 percent said they are considering doing so.

Combs is hoping the Face book album will help them solve that 10-year-old mystery.

He said the photos have generated a number of comments, although the woman has not been identified.

"Hopefully, it'll spark some interest," he said.

A different medium

A few years ago, Lt. David Jude, spokesman for the Kentucky State Police, attended a national police conference and sat in on a session about using Facebook in police work.

"I thought, 'That's the goofiest thing I ever heard of,'" Jude recalled.

But he has since done an about-face.

Nowadays, the state police frequently post on the agency's Facebook page links to news releases and announcements.

"It's opened up a whole different medium for us to reach a huge number of people," Jude said, noting that more than 27,000 people have "liked" the agency's Facebook page. "It is a way for us to generate the opinion of the public real-time."

Jude said the department also uses Twitter, another popular social networking site, as a means of marketing the agency.

Behind the scenes, police use information gleaned from Facebook to help investigate robberies, assaults and a host of other crimes.

"There's a lot of information that you can gather from these social media sites," Jude said.

For example, potential witnesses to a crime — or even additional suspects — are sometimes found by looking at a suspect's Facebook friend list, said Sgt. Pete Ford of Lexington police's robbery/homicide unit.

In other cases, officers given only a suspect's name might find photographs of the person on Facebook that help detectives get a physical description of who they're looking for.

Officers in Lexington are "using it more and more on a daily basis," Ford said. "We have done stings with Facebook."

In one such case, he said, an officer using a decoy account sent a friend request to a suspect in a violent crime.

The suspect accepted and, after gaining the man's trust, the officer, using the decoy profile, was able to set up a meeting with the suspect. He was arrested at the meeting.

"Law enforcement doesn't have a whole lot of tools available to it," Ford said. "If we're told that people are communicating through these means, we'll sit out there and peruse them."

Sometimes, criminals will "speak in code" or "talk around" the crime they've committed via postings on Face book, he said. Some discussions of an incident might be more blatant.

Last year, Meredith Lewis Browning of Lexington was indicted on charges of manslaughter, second-degree assault and driving under the influence at an age of less than 21. Facebook has played a key role in the case.

Browning was driving a Volvo on Old Richmond Road on May 27, 2009, when the vehicle crashed, killing one passenger, Cierra James, 22, and injuring another, Christina Lauren Fraley.

A police officer read a posting about the crash on Kentucky.com, in which a reader said Browning, who was 20 at the time, had indicated on her Facebook page that she had been drinking alcohol before the wreck.

Police executed a search warrant and obtained a computer disk containing wall posts, pictures and messages on Browning's Facebook account. That case is pending.

Decoy profiles

Detective David Hester of Lexington police's adult sex crimes/domestic violence unit, said police here sometimes use Facebook in searches for runaway teenagers.

A decoy profile can be used to send the child a friend request. If the child responds, sometimes officers can get information that leads them to where the child is staying, he said.

Facebook or other social networking sites have helped police track down the whereabouts of suspects by allowing them to get the IP (Internet protocol) address of the computer from which they logged on.

In November, law enforcement officers said they were able to track down a man who had escaped from the Montgomery County jail after he logged onto Facebook and other Web sites from a computer in Green Bay, Wis.

However, such sleuthing can be complicated, Jude said, because a court might have to issue a subpoena to get the Web site to release the information. And, he said, it probably would provide only a general area where the person might be.

Then there are the cases in which Facebook is actually the scene of the crime.

Sometimes, Hester said, people have been known to violate protective orders against them by posting messages on their victims' Facebook pages.

"That happens frequently," he said. "People are dumb."

The Center for Social Media survey indicated that law enforcement agencies are more likely to maintain an account on Facebook than any other site.

That's probably because it has become so popular among the population as a whole.

"Facebook has just really taken over," Hester said. "MySpace just isn't cool anymore."

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