2017-03-26 / Insight

Social media helps law enforcement; also gives criminals way to stalk victims

BY PHIL FOLEY
810-452-2616 •


Det./Sgt. Jason Parks shows off some of the 40 some electronic devices the Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept. is holding in evidence. Social media is becoming an ever-more important aspect of criminal investigations, said Parks. 
Photo by Phil Foley Det./Sgt. Jason Parks shows off some of the 40 some electronic devices the Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept. is holding in evidence. Social media is becoming an ever-more important aspect of criminal investigations, said Parks. Photo by Phil Foley LAPEER COUNTY — As hard as it may seem to believe, there are people alive who can remember a time when computers transmitted data from one to another slow enough more to read the words as they scrolled across the screen.

Social media, as we know it, just turned 20 years old with the birth of Six Degrees

— the first site to allow users to upload a profile and make friends with other users. Named for a mid-

90s games in which players counted their degree of separation from

Kevin Bacon, Six Degrees barely lasted into the new millennia, closings its doors in 2001.

However, it kicked off a wave of ways of communicating electronically — Friendster, Myspace,

Snapchat, Reddit, Instagram, Photobucket, Twitter, Google Buzz, Loopt, Blippy, and Groupon, Pinterest, Spotify, Facebook and more — that has fundamentally changed the way we interact with each other.

“It’s really changing everything,” said Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept. Det./Sgt. Jason Parks. Imlay City Police Dept. Chief Scott Pike said he has “a love-hate relationship” with social media.

Lawmen across the county all agree that social media is here to stay, constantly evolving and changing the way they do their jobs.

The Imlay City Police Dept. had a Facebook account when Pike took over last year, he just started using it more aggressively. He also revived the city’s dormant Nixle.com account and upgraded to the premium account, which allows for automatic translation into Spanish.

He said that’s an important feature in a city with a population that’s 40 percent Hispanic. He added, he also likes that Nixle messages are also automatically sent out on Facebook and Twitter.

Both Imlay City and Lapeer use Nixle, Pike said, and all you need to do to stay in touch is text 888777 and type in the ZIP codes of the communities you want to follow.

“It’s a great tool for connecting with the community,” he said. However, on the downside, Pike observed, social media “creates all sorts of havoc.” He said that’s because people seem to lose all their filters when they go online.

Pike and others have seen a rise in harassment complaints from people upset over what they see on social media. Parks noted that while there are harassment and stalking statutes on the books, unless there is a threat of physical harm, law enforcement generally doesn’t get involved.

Social media, said Lapeer Police Dept. Det./ Sgt. Craig Gormley has “changed quite a few aspects of law enforcement — both positive and negative.”

He said social media has become a tremendous investigative tool for a couple of reasons. One is that it helps law enforcement develop connections between suspects and their associates.

“The more people we find and talk to who’ve been exposed to an incident the better off we are,” Gormley said. He added, “People have a hard time controlling what they say” on social media and that can lead to crimes being solved.

While saying it “wasn’t the crime of the century,” Pike said following a recent egging incident in Imlay City, he went to social media announcing, “we know who you are” and the youth involved turned themselves in. He said cleanup arrangements were made with the homeowners and it was kept out of the courts.

On the down side, Parks said, social media generates huge amounts of data. Along with photographing every place they’ve been and everything they’ve eaten, people are also sharing cat videos and offering their opinions on everything and it’s all being stored.

“Some of these devices,” Parks said, “can hold 20,000 — 40,000 files.” If the device is part of a criminal investigation, “somebody has to go through those files.”

But those files, he said, can lead to successful criminal prosecutions. He noted the ability to track Andrew Hall, 23, every five minutes from the data on his Garman GPS unit led to the Deerfield Township man pleading no contest to second-degree murder, and a 17-year minimum prison sentence, in the shooting of his friend and co-worker a year ago January.

He said the Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept. currently has more than 40 electronic devices in its evidence room. “We’re seeing them produce valuable evidence,” Parks said.

Gormley said social media is something of a double-edge sword since it also makes it easier for criminals to commit crime. He said the same apps that allow people to keep in touch with their family and friends allow criminals to keep in touch with their confederates.

When Nextel came out with its walkie-talkie function, just as contractors liked the ease with which it allowed them to communicate with their workers, criminals liked the same feature for how easy it made communication between them.

Parks has seen cases where scam artists have used Ancestry.com to gather background information about potential victims. He added, men in their 20s have used social media to meet underaged girls. He’s seen a rise in sexual assaults between people who met online who wouldn’t have been in the same social circles before the rise of social media.

Technology, Gormley said, is allowing criminals to find new victims in novel ways while it’s changing people’s lives for the better at the same time. “Sometimes we have difficulty keeping up with it,” he said.

Parks said the sheriff’s department has been sending detectives to state and federal computer crime seminars since 2010. He noted that while a good Dell computer will last for a decade, the software on it is obsolete in just three years. It’s a constant struggle to keep up.

Lawmen, Parks said, understand social media is “everywhere and there’s no indication it’s going anywhere soon.”

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