Three boys from Sidney have criminal records now, thanks to a few moments of bad judgment and the social media that proved their guilt.
The 16-year-old and two 17-year-old Vancouver Island residents, who cannot be named under the Youth Act, were some of the 325 suspects so far under investigation for participating in the 2011 Stanley Cup riots, and three of the 149 people charged with criminal offences – largely due to the evidence of bystanders who posted countless YouTube videos and Facebook photos of the event.
The highly profiled role that social media played in the riots could foreshadow much of what’s to come as social innovation transforms the way police forces around the world respond to crime.
But while the Victoria Police Department is far from deploying robocops to patrol the streets, it hasn’t sidestepped the change, says VicPD spokesperson and social media officer Const. Mike Russell.
In fact, VicPD is leading its own charge into a more impressive social presence than ever before.
“People are feeling more connected, and it’s not that we have real numbers on how social media has changed how crime is reported — it’s more in people’s perception,” says Russell. “Any tool to get into a conversation with the public is useful, and it allows us to work together.”
While many may already know the department is developing a solid presence on Twitter and Facebook, others may not guess that VicPD has its own YouTube channel, Reddit account, even Pinterest site. And while connecting with the community is all part of the mission, says Russell, another part is building a presence that people can see and respond to.
“It is tough to tell, on my end, how these tools have impacted crime rates, but we do see examples where people are tweeting us with updates of things they see, and people can email reports in now, which has made a difference,” he says.
It isn’t lighthearted fun when it comes to how the force uses social tools. One platform called Crime Reports offers an up-to-date way for residents to track crime in their communities.
VicPD signed up for the U.S.-provided service in 2010, and merged geographic information systems technology with police records management data to make it easy for the public to see crime trends in their neighbourhoods through the VicPD website. With an ability to monitor all reported activity every 24 hours and issue alerts to residents who sign up for the service, it’s almost like having an officer in your computer.
Because VicPD is required to scrub the data due to privacy information laws, it doesn’t list sexual assaults or suicides – but it is one way that locals can follow break-ins, thefts or other incidents in an area.
On a similar scale, Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is a community, media and police co-operative program designed to “involve the public in the fight against crime.” The anonymity-based group regularly posts online a new Crime of the Week, as well as mug shots of individuals wanted by local law enforcement.
“Web tips are responsible for at least 50 per cent of all our tips now, and it is always increasing,” says VicPD Const. Ann Zimmerman, Crime Stoppers police co-ordinator.
“The phones have really died down. The whole point of our organization is anonymity, but people feel even safer writing in.”
Although these tools have aided VicPD’s efforts, Russell is quick to clarify that the force doesn’t have secret rights into the back end of Facebook or other social media sites – a warrant is still needed for any investigative work, which is where officers like detective Mark Knoop, VicPD’s new computer forensics specialist, comes in.
Still, when it comes to publicly viewable material, like the social videos and photos that allowed the Insurance Corporation of B.C. (ICBC) to file a suit seeking more than $500,000 in damages from 46 people charged or convicted in the 2011 Stanley Cup riots, Russell says it’s wise to focus on common sense.
“What it comes down to, is that there are a lot more eyes on the street, and people are often willing to help in this way,” he says.
“Not everyone is comfortable with getting involved on a physical level, but so many people have smart phones and a presence online now, and they are willing to share what they see.”
FACEBOOK: Unlike the urgent nature of Twitter, Facebook has become the force’s main platform for posting all general information, including updates and YouTube videos. VicPD also receives more recruitment questions on Facebook than through any other means, though nearly half of queries are misguided residents looking for the Victoria State Police in Australia.
TWITTER: If you follow @vicpdcanada, you already know the force tweets about everything from criminals-at-large to nifty photos of Victoria. While Twitter is predominantly used as a way to engage the public, it has also become the No. 1 tool to generate buzz on missing persons and, in some cases, track them down. Thanks to hundreds of posts and re-tweets by VicPD’s network, the force was able to find the 90-year-old woman who recently went missing in downtown Victoria.
YOUTUBE: VicPD’s YouTube channel is the place that curious residents can find information on everything from recorded media announcements to specialized videos filmed by officers. Recent efforts include the Coffee Shop Safety campaign geared to make people aware of the dangers of leaving laptops unguarded.
PINTEREST: You won’t find VicPD pinning favourite wedding dress shots, but the force does use Pinterest for storing and posting photos through two main pages: Victoria Police and Is This Yours? The site has helped countless people reclaim stolen property, with the most recent reuniting a snatched camera and photo card from a wedding.
REDDIT: As social media officer Const. Mike Russell describes, a lot of the viewers of Reddit are “the college crowd, and not necessarily pro-police.” However, Russell has found most people are interested in taking the time to debate issues through the site. VicPD uses Reddit to post information, like its recent Canada Day backpack search policy, so that people can read it for themselves.