Technology
Brian Lawless/ AP

Who done it? Citizen investigators mine social media for crime clues

DIY sleuths can help police catch crooks, but also cause potential problems with misidentification and obstruction

In a video posted last month on Facebook, a kitten — short-haired and gray with white feet — approaches a young African-American man dressed in red. The man coaxes the cat closer, pets it briefly and then kicks the animal into the air, to the delight of friends behind him, one of whom recorded the cruel attack on his phone. The kicker turns to the camera and laughs.

Within hours, the video had elicited dozens of outraged comments, and interspersed among them were posts dissecting the footage for clues to the kicker’s location and identity. One woman called the construction company seen on nearby scaffolding to ask if it could help pinpoint the location. Elis Pacheco, a 47-year-old marketing manager in Brooklyn, enlisted the help of his brother-in-law, a video editor, to blow it up so they could take a closer look.

Once it was magnified, a "Fulton Street" sign in the background was crystal clear, Pacheco said. Virtually cruising through the borough's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood on Google Maps, Pacheco and his brother-in-law then found the set of buildings in the background and determined the address where the attack took place. Pacheco then posted screen shots of the cat kicker’s grinning face on Facebook with the caption “Hi! My name is SCUMBAG. … My address is [redacted] but no one seems to know my name. … Can you help?”

Cat kicker
The arrest of Andre Robinson after a video of him kicking a cat appeared on Youtube made the front page of the New York Daily News.
New York Daily News

Among Pacheco’s more than 1,600 Facebook friends were members of the media, who quickly ran stories on the video and notified police. The police quickly identified the man as 21-year-old Andre Robinson, who had been arrested for various alleged crimes in the past. Just hours after Pacheco’s post asking for help, Robinson was again arrested, this time for animal cruelty.

“Social media doesn’t always have to be for entertainment. It can be a wonderful tool for police,” said Tiffany Mitchell, public affairs officer for the NYPD's 81st Precinct.

But the case is hardly unique. The social media and communications revolution has provided a world of opportunities — and serious dangers — for amateur detectives and the police alike. The evidence trails now available online can lead to criminals being caught, but there are major concerns that some Internet free-for-all sleuthing yields little more than confusion, false accusations and misinformation. Frustration can arise for police faced with well-meaning tipsters who don’t understand official procedures. Savvy digital sleuths, on the other hand, sometimes find that law enforcement isn’t computer-literate enough to understand the help it’s being given.

“We’ll call police about a case and tell them, ‘We have the IP address for someone you’re looking for.’ And they’ll say, ‘What’s an IP address?’” said a member of the Animal Beta Project, a small international group that investigates evidence of animal cruelty posted online, who goes by the alias John Green to protect against reprisal. “When we bring them our research, we put together as simple and straightforward a package as possible so they’ll understand it.”

Whether it’s aiding in the arrest of an animal abuser via Facebook, linking the remains of John and Jane Does with unsolved missing persons cases via sites such as the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) and Websleuths.com, or examining surveillance footage to identify vehicles involved in hit-and-runs on Jalopnik, there’s no question that civilians can and will contribute to evidence gathering.

Alexandria Goddard, a blogger who retrieved and posted deleted Twitter screen shots in which teen boys later convicted of raping an underage girl in Steubenville, Ohio, had incriminated themselves, has created a digital informational pamphlet for amateur evidence-gatherers. The guide explains how to make release requests from Facebook and Twitter and what you’ll need to present usable evidence to attorneys, who, Goddard said, often don’t have the time or expertise to scour social media for evidence. 

Social media doesn’t always have to be for entertainment. It can be a wonderful tool for police.

Tiffany Mitchell

NYPD public affairs officer

But it is not quite so easy. There is a serious question about how well police departments can incorporate new-media evidence provided by sources outside their ranks, and how much self-regulation of do-it-yourself investigating the Internet could impose.

“Citizens can do amazing work, but pulling actual evidence is different than picking out a person and posting his or her Facebook page on the Internet and telling people, ‘Go get ’em!’” said Bill Jensen, a crime journalist and expert on amateur digital detectives who recently led a seminar on the topic at SXSW Interactive. “It's a matter of moderating whatever site the information is on and threatening to kick off people who are posting unsubstantiated claims.”

Tricia Griffith hosts two crime podcasts and co-owns Websleuths, one of the leading sites in the emerging field. Websleuths won’t allow missing persons posts unless the site can verify information with police, Griffith said. Posts in which users say they called a detective on a case and discuss what they were told are deleted immediately, as are addresses of suspects or names of people of interest in a case unless they have been reported in the mainstream media. If a poster claims to be the best friend or a family member of a person a case centers on, Websleuth moderators will contact the person for verification and delete the post if he or she isn’t able to prove it.

“If there's someone on a Web page publicly posting true inside information, they should be arrested for obstruction,” said Rich Kelly, a former deputy sheriff in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and a member of Websleuths. “It’s up to the moderators of these boards to manage the information and posts contained within, and most boards do.”

The police dilemma

However, not all crowdsourced or Web-generated evidence will necessarily be helpful, or usable, to law enforcement.

“It’s a dilemma for police,” said former NYPD detective and private investigator William J. Majeski. “What happens when someone comes in with info is, it may be valid, but the police have to investigate from the very beginning regardless. They can’t just take someone’s word for something. Even when police seek info from the public, they have to coordinate it with other information that they have.”

Even seemingly irrefutable evidence — such as a citizen pointing out a possible suspect caught on surveillance video — might be problematic if given to police by non-law-enforcement personnel, said Majeski.

“The problem with that is the chain of evidence,” he said. “Who had access to the footage? Could it have been altered? Who is this civilian — did he have a personal grudge against the defendant? Even if a civilian found something in that footage, it’s incumbent on the detective to verify it and find different ways to corroborate it. Or a good defense lawyer is going to find a way to get [that evidence] thrown out.”

Who had access to the footage? Could it have been altered? Who is this civilian — did he have a personal grudge against the defendant?

William J. Majeski

Private investigator

There are pockets of relentless and dedicated digital DIY detectives, however, capable of highly sophisticated sleuthing. And, like Pacheco, some of them are cat lovers.

The Animal Beta Project is a group that splintered off from a larger Facebook group dedicated to identifying the maker of a notorious series of cat snuff films, including the most well known, "1 Boy 2 Kittens," in 2010.

Members meticulously probed the footage for a year and a half and eventually uncovered the identity of the cat killer, a fame-obsessed, mentally ill escort and gay porn actor in Canada named Luka Magnotta. They worked with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to submit the evidence they’d gathered about Magnotta’s identity and location, so Canadian police would take them seriously.

Despite pleas from the Animal Beta Project and PETA that Magnotta was so unstable he would kill a human being, the police didn’t pursue the case. Then in 2012, the online video "1 Lunatic 1 Ice Pick" allegedly showed Magnotta stabbing and dismembering a man later identified as 33-year-old student Lin Jun. Magnotta went on the run and was later arrested in Berlin and charged with murder.

“We could have prevented that murder,” said John Green. “We were on top of a mountain screaming, ‘Please, listen to us!’ but no one did.”

Give the public a shot?

There are many members of law enforcement who welcome online information provided by civilians. Some are even pioneering the use of volunteer law enforcement departments. Many civilians work on unsolved cold cases across the U.S.

“The Internet age, for better or worse, has extended the ability of the public to involve themselves in investigations,” said Deborah Halber, whose book about citizen sleuths, "The Skeleton Crew," comes out in July. “Now, like any other game-changing shift, the kinks in the system will have to be worked out until, hopefully, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.”

It is now not unusual for information in the case files of missing people or unidentified remains to be completely wrong, said George W. Adams, national director of financial operations at NamUs. Making the files available to family members and interested Web detectives via the Internet has allowed people to correct obvious mistakes in the file, such as the person’s race or height entered incorrectly due to human error. “Volunteers give us new sets of eyes and different perspectives. I can’t see this as anything but a viable alternative for us,” Adams said.

Screenshots
Screen grabs from the websites of ConnectedtotheCase, left, and NamUs, right.

Currently, there is no national database of cold murder cases, but Jensen is developing one, which he said will provide basic information for the 200,000 unsolved murders in the U.S. “Right now, many of these cases are sitting in a box in a warehouse gathering dust,” he said. “Why not let the public give it a shot? The people who committed the crime have gotten away with it. They’re ghosts. But the crowd can help. And it doesn't need to be a witch hunt. The crowd can dig up the information, and funnel it through a detective who can follow up.”

Developing those relationships is likely crucial to both using and controlling the role of social media in crime solving. “Police have to start understanding that you can’t control social media,” said Morgan Wright, a former investigator and CEO of Crowd Sourced Investigations. “So you have to spend time building up relationships and trust. When you’re investigating a crime the public is aware of, you say, ‘Here’s how you can help us, but this is what hurts us.’ You can’t stop people from posting stupid, unhelpful things on Twitter. But you can start getting ahead of it, by building relationships with the community.”

Last year, Wright launched ConnectedtotheCase.com, a site that gives people access to open crime cases in their areas by linking to their Facebook profiles. Now Wright is developing an app, SafePoint, that he said will allow users to report crimes in their communities, such as break-ins, robberies and even child abductions. Wright refers to it as the “democratization of information.”

But some who advocate for tighter moderation of Web sleuthing are the sleuths themselves.

“Do we want everyone on the Internet to solve crimes? No,” Green said. “Not people who call 911 about stupid and mundane things, for example, no.”

While debate continues about whether laypeople can blow open cases without screwing them up, Green and his anonymous, unpaid comrades scattered around the globe continue their time-consuming work combing through videos of animal torture and murder, looking for clues no one else is finding or, in many cases, even seeking.

“We do it because no one else will,” Green said.

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