The survey, of more than 1,200 law enforcement professionals with federal, state, and local agencies, found that 83% of the respondents are using social media, particularly Facebook and YouTube, to further their investigations. And of those not doing so, 74% intend to start using social media as a tool within the next year, which would raise the usage rate to about 95%.
More than two-thirds (67%) of respondents believe that social media helps solve crimes more quickly. The most common uses of social media among those who do it include identifying persons of interest (85%) and their associates (75%), identifying criminal activity (76%) and its location (66%), and gathering photos or statements as corroborating evidence (61%).
Less common is the use of social media to provide evidence to justify search warrants; just 23% of survey respondents had done so. But when social media was used in that way, evidence held up in court 87% of the time, they said.
[ Learn more about how law enforcement believes social media will help its investigations. See FBI Seeks Data-Mining App for Social Media. ]
"Investigation and analysis of social media content provides a huge opportunity in terms of crime prevention and offender apprehension," Samantha Gwinn, an experienced crime analyst with local and federal law enforcement agencies and now a government solutions consultant for LexisNexis Risk Solutions, said in a statement. "As law enforcement personnel continue to participate in formal training and gain an increased comfort level with the power and scope of social media, as well as its limitations, the value it provides will continue to rise."
Law enforcement professionals in the Northeast reported the highest use of social media, at 89%, while the South showed the lowest use, 77%. Respondents in the Midwest (83%) and West (81%) fell between that range.
Federal and local law enforcement agents were most likely to use social media in their work (81% and 82%, respectively). State agencies lag behind at 71%. Those in supervisory positions were slightly more likely to use social media for investigative purposes (85%) than rank-and-file officers (79%).
Law enforcement agencies in smaller cities with fewer officers use social media more often. In cities with populations under 50,000, 86% of respondents use social media, while in cities with more than 100,000, usage dropped to 78%.
The emergence of social media as an investigative tool has been more by happenstance than intent. Eighty percent of users are self-taught. They do that by jumping in and navigating social media sites (70%), applying lessons learned in their personal lives (45%), collaborating with colleagues (45%), or attending law enforcement seminars and conferences on the topic (19%). Only 10% of respondents said they have received formal training in how to use social media in investigations.
The survey didn't address privacy issues or policies that come into play as law enforcement officers look to Facebook and other social sites as part of their investigations. Earlier this year, officials from the Department of Homeland Security were called before Congress to answer questions about a DHS program that monitors keywords in social media for disaster preparedness and response and to reassure lawmakers that the program stayed within the bounds of the law.
Every company needs a social networking policy, but don't stifle creativity and productivity with too much formality. Also in the debut, all-digital Social Media For Grownups issue of The BrainYard: The proper tools help in setting social networking policy for your company and ensure that you'll be able to follow through. (Free with registration.)