July 4, 2012

What the tech? EPD is online to fight crime

Elgin police Detective Mark Whaley looks over a
Facebook page. Police have added social media
to their arsenal of investigative tools used to solve
crime. (Ted Schnell • BocaJump)

Second in a series

By Ted Schnell • BocaJump | Tuesday, July 3, 2012

When someone vandalized two memorials on Elgin’s downtown riverfront last week, it was social media that eventually called police attention to the incident. Within a matter of hours, city crews had cleaned up the damage.

In that instance, ajogger used his cellphone to snap a pic of the damage to the Elgin FirefightersMemorial. He posted the photo to Twitter. BocaJump saw the image and reported it to police, then learned while taking its own pictures that the Pioneer Family Memorial also had been tagged with spray paint.

This situation, Elgin police Cmdr. Glenn Theriault said Friday, illustrates how social media can assist police as they investigate crime, although he said it still took a direct message from BocaJump to alert officers to the vandalism. Police can’t monitor social media all the time.

Elgin police do use social media as an investigative tool to help solve crime. That became apparent during the June 12 bond hearing for Ricky Moreno and Mario Williams, both 15 and both of Elgin, who were charged in the June 7 shooting death of 16-year-old Nestor Alvarado.

The next day, prosecutors told a judge in the Cook County Courthouse in Rolling Meadows during bond hearing for the duo that in the hours leading up to the shooting of Alvarado, Moreno had “called out” other gangs on his Facebook page to tempt them into a fight, according to The Courier-News.

Elgin Police Chief Jeff Swoboda would not discuss the murder case, which is just entering the court system. But, in a June 27 interview, he acknowledged that social media is becoming one more tool police can use to fight crime.

“Social media, in general, is something that’s become almost standard course for us to look into on a regular basis,” Swoboda said. It is a resource, he added, not just for investigations, but also for gathering intelligence on criminals and street gangs.

“Sometimes, when a crime occurs, we say, ‘I wonder if this has anything to do with social media? Is there any evidence we can gather, any information we can gather?’ … All those types of things are part of it,” he said. “… People will go to social media to brag about certain things. Well, if they’re bragging about certain crimes, it’s become standard operating procedure for the police department to check social media from time to time … it definitely is one of the things we look at.”

Swoboda added that the information people post to their social media pages, whether it is text, photos or videos, can provide clues and evidence in a criminal investigation.

The chief was reluctant to go into too much detail about how detectives do their work with social media. Some criminals are aware that police may be monitoring them, but others are not, he said.

Still, it doesn’t take much to figure out that the first place a detective might start is a Google search for a suspect’s name or even a street name to see if one or the other is linked to a Facebook or Twitter account, for example. That’s the same kind of Google search someone might start while trying to get back in touch with a former high school or college classmate.

As with any other evidence in an investigation, Swoboda said that what police find on social media can serve to reaffirm or cast doubt on an individual’s statements to police. For example, if a person tells police he has not been involved in gangs, he or she would garner additional scrutiny if detectives found Facebook photos of the individual wearing gang colors while posing with gang members or throwing gang signs.

Swoboda said the use of social media in police investigations goes hand in hand with the work of the department’s computer forensics expert. That detective works specifically to access information hidden in technological devices, whether on a computer hard drive or in a cellphone, for example.

“That helps out in a variety of ways … with cellphones recovered in an investigation, it helps out with social media, it helps out (while investigating) someone who’s selling drugs and keeping their ledger on a computer,” the chief said. “It helps in all kinds of cases — not just gangs, but drugs, domestic violence situations … stalking … bullying. …”

Angry, name-calling incidents or arguments that once were spread by word of mouth take on a much different life when posted for hundreds or more to see on Facebook or Twitter.

“Social media are kind of the new town square,” he said. “Bullying is another big factor ... And some people consider it a place to air all their dirty laundry.”

Even posting videos or photos of someone in an embarrassing situation can have unintended consequences. “So kids these days face a very quick learning curve — entire lives can really be disrupted by one stupid act,” he said.

The bottom line, Swoboda concluded, is that Elgin police tackle social media from two fronts:
  • One is as investigators looking to solve crimes and to head off criminal activity.
  • The second is to educate residents to exercise caution about what they post on social media. The department’s school liaison officers do this as they work with kids, but the department also works to educate adults through its community relations programs.
“We spend a lot of time teaching kids about that” through the department’s Kids United and Resident Officer Program of Elgin Camp, Swoboda said.

What the tech?

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