Windsor police turning to social media more to solve crime
'The reach that social media provides is absolutely unprecedented,' expert says
Alleged meat thieves, suspected barbecue crooks and accused cat burglars — they've all starred in surveillance videos shared on social media by police in the Windsor-Essex region.
Police across the country are turning to social media more often than ever to ask for the public's help in solving petty crimes to drive-by shootings, like the one caught on dash cam last week and shared by the Windsor Police Service on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
"We know it's not going away, we're embracing it and we're trying to stay caught up with the trends," Windsor police spokesman Sgt. Matt D'Asti said of social media. "Social media empowers people and we understand that. Our following continues to grow every day on social media and people are more than willing to assist the police."
D'Asti can't divulge specific numbers but says social media postings on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are gleaning tips from across the country and helping to solve crimes, both big and small.
"Last week, we posted an image of a young girl who went missing, and I can tell you that we immediately noticed that it was trending. It was gaining traction rapidly, and by the time she was located that image had been viewed over 110,000, and by morning it was up around 180,000," D'Asti said.
Potential to reach thousands
D'Asti said Windsor police take care in posting video and photos on social media.
"We share those images when we're absolutely sure we have a wanted person," D'Asti said.
This type of caution is crucial, since videos and images posted to social media will live online long after the case is over, said Maria Carroccia, a Windsor lawyer and president of the Windsor Criminal Lawyers' Association.
She said people seeing a surveillance video or photo online might automatically believe that person is guilty of the crime they're charged with.
"People form opinions based on what they see and read," Carroccia said. "It can have a real effect on people's lives."
Carroccia has represented clients who have had their pictures appear in the media. She said online images could negatively impact the reputations of people accused of crimes, even if the courts rule they are innocent.
"We know employers Google people now to find out what is there. These (images) don't go away, once they're on the Internet, so there could be repercussions for them."
Long tradition of seeking public assistance
Patrick Parnaby an associate professor of sociology at the University of Guelph, says the request to get the public involved is nothing new for police.
"The police have always been dependent on the public to solve a large proportion of their crimes. It's just a logical extent of what they've always done," he said. "What they need to do is send out the request where people have their eyes and ears and lot of people spend a lot of time on social media."
More than 1 billion people worldwide are on both YouTube and Facebook, the companies claim. Twitter says it has more than 360 million users.
"The reach that social media provides is absolutely unprecedented. Through the social media channels, they're going direct to the consumer, so they're reaching hundreds of thousands of people in an instant. We've never seen this before," Parnaby said.
While hundreds of thousands of people may see a single video, how many actually call the police after watching it is small, Parnaby said.
"How many people are taking this seriously and spending a lot of time thinking about the content they're seeing is another question. The vast majority see it as a form of entertainment," he said. "The number of individuals that will act on what they've seen is very, very small. But at the end of the day, it only takes one or two people with insight to help the police department."
Little research on social media
Parnaby said there has been little research conducted on how and whether social media specifically helps police solve crimes. The research that has been done is "hit and miss," according to Parnaby.
It's complicated and difficult to determine if a video posted on social media was the key clue that cracked a case, he said.
"That is not to suggest it doesn't work, it's just difficult to determine if does or doesn't work," Parnaby said.
He said most of the video posts work well with certain crimes and not others.
"It tends to be used and most effective with property crimes," he said.
Although, Windsor police say dash cam video they posted to YouTube and shared on Facebook and Twitter helped lead them to find two cars they believe were involved in a drive-by shooting last week.
"It's actually not that hard to disseminate these kinds of requests. On the face of it, it might appear they're investing a lot of time and energy but a well-run media relations department can do this quite quickly," Parnaby said.
He said more often than not, police departments will choose to allocate their time and resources based on a priority system. If police have other more pressing issues hand, they're not going to bother with posting videos of alleged barbecue thieves.