Socializing Law Enforcement: Walking a Digital Beat

It has been said, “A good cop is never cold, never gets wet, and never goes hungry.”

That saying, if you don’t know, has been around for a long time and there are many interpretations as to what it refers. Some attribute it to meaning a good cop is resourceful, can adapt to a changing situation, or plans ahead and has the equipment, clothing, and energy bars in reserve as needed.

I tend to think it refers to a time when cops walked a beat. No cruiser or squad car to take shelter in or drive distances for meals. It really means a good cop had engagement with the community they served, interacting, protecting and relying upon the community in order to do their job more effectively and efficiently.

Today we have an online social community. So, let us all be “good cops,” and let us interact and walk a digital beat so to speak, as we protect our online social communities.

I am not referring to using social media for public relations purposes, community outreach, emergency notifications or even recruitment and background checks on new hires and internal reviews. All valid uses of social media.

I am instead focusing on homicides and shootings, I am talking about sexual assaults, grooming, sexploitation, missing persons, fugitive apprehension, self-harm. In short, your bread and butter police investigations which are, coincidentally, the least understood and misapplied form of social media use in law enforcement today.

Facebook bans violence

We need to recognize and allow our social online communities to provide for us in law enforcement. Not to provide shelter from the wet or cold or food for hunger but information. Information in the form of witnesses, offenders, first-hand video testimony and physical evidence. Meta data on images, geo location on phones and tablets, communications, networks, and criminal associates. Bank transactions and digital currencies to be traced and attached for forfeiture. Online market places dealing in narcotics, firearms and stolen merchandise. Just to name a few.

Just as our society lives their lives online and have adopted mobile applications, and voluntarily agree to give much more information than they realize over to these app providers. We need to when necessary, and with legal authority, access this treasure trove of information.

When I speak with departments about their social media programs I am often referred to understaffed, specialized units who are doing a variety of tasks within their agency.

I advocate for an integrated online/social media program that is contained within your agency’s investigative units. Violent crimes, property crimes, gangs, narcotics, juvenile/school units and financial crimes all can benefit directly. Prosecutors’ offices can benefit from bail bond enhancements, and corrections can benefit be conducting social online compliance checks.

Having a policy and protocols in place is essential for authorizing the use and procedures agency personnel can follow in order to avoid the liability of misapplied application of investigations and the creating of unauthorized accounts.

Most agencies are unaware where and how to procure these accounts, set up the hardware and how to cleanse the equipment used in these operations. That’s before any selection and training of personnel can even begin.

Unfortunately for many in law enforcement, social media providers have started to enforce their ToS ( terms of service) provisions more vigorously, translating into shutting down fictitious accounts.

Recently, there was a $134,000.00 Department of Justice settlement with a New York woman over images from her cell phone. Combine this with social media and online content litigation being a fast-growing legal specialty, and the fact that prosecutors’ offices are asking for more detailed and formalized documentation and information on where, when, and how online evidence is collected. Every day more applications enter the market that allows for encrypted communication and sharing in order to avoid law enforcement detection.


Now for the good news, it does not have to be so bleak. We can train our personnel, change outdated or nonexistent policies and get up to speed. Collaborate and form professional law enforcement associations for the sharing of technique and hardware/software options. Just like implementing any other program it does not happen overnight, and you need to have buy-in from top administration, but the results will speak for themselves.

I look upon this as a great opportunity. An opportunity to ensure policies are in place that formalizes the use of SM and take seriously what has been clear for some time. There is a high cost of falling behind for agencies that fail to take action or ignore that criminal investigations have evolved, and that policing has changed. Be safe as you walk your “digital” beat.

Neal McLoughlin is a supervisor with a major Midwest law enforcement agency. He has initiated and developed social media investigative units. Currently assigned as the coordinator of a multi-agency task force dedicated to online and mobile application data mining in support of investigations. He has a B.S., MBA, PSWA and achieved a C.F.E. designation in 2005 and is a member of several cyber crime/security associations. He is a founding member and current board member of the Association of Social Media & Online Investigators ( He trains and consults exclusively with state and federal law enforcement agencies. He can be contacted directly at (844) 672-5246 or via email at [email protected]