#Busted: Summit Cove snowboard thief ID’d within hours through Facebook
November 14, 2016
Late last night, a man in a white baseball cap walked into the front hallway of an apartment complex in Summit Cove. After taking a quick look around, he took a snowboard off a door rack and walked out.
That snowboard belonged to a resident who had the wherewithal to install a surveillance system when he moved in. It captured the theft on camera, and at the suggestion of the Summit County Sheriff's deputies, the resident posted the video on his Facebook page and in the group One Man's Junk Summit County, a popular social media marketplace and community message board with more than 16,000 members.
The page's members, or "One Man's Detectives," were able to quickly put a bow on a theft case that might have run cold without the surveillance video and help from the community. Within hours, the resident received messages with the name and photos of a man with the same appearance (and same hat) who was at a party earlier that night.
The resident passed those photos on to deputies, who quickly confirmed the suspect's identity and started tracking him down. He had not yet been arrested as of Monday afternoon.
"I was a little hesitant about posting it, to be honest," the resident said. "But I figured I had this video and I needed to find out. The site was really responsive."
It wasn't the first time Facebook has been used by Summit County law enforcement to ID suspects: Last month, a man on a motorcycle who was threatening drivers with a BB gun was successfully identified through posts on One Man's Junk, according to an arrest affidavit. He was arrested and charged with menacing.
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"I wouldn't say it's common, but here in Summit County it's definitely not the first time people have helped deputies identify suspects through Facebook," said Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons. "It's an interesting place, One Man's Junk."
"I had a bike stolen and because of this page it was found and the culprit was arrested. However you need to file a police report and press charges, they do take theft seriously, especially when you have him on video doing it," commented one user.
Navigating the network
Tapping in to the fire hose of information on social media to solve cases or develop leads is common in more than 88 percent of law enforcement agencies nationwide, according to a survey last year by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. It's also commonly used to notify the public of crime problems and to quickly disseminate information about natural disasters or other emergencies.
That's the primary goal of Breckenridge police's Facebook page, but it also has another perk for its followers: regular postings of the locations and times that officers will be doing radar gun speed enforcement. Not the best strategy if you're laying a trap, but police chief Dennis McLaughlin has said his department isn't trying to trap anyone — he just wants people to slow down. If he could get people to stop speeding without writing any tickets, he said, that would be just fine.
The speeding posts also have the added benefit of getting followers to interact with the page more, which makes it more effective if the department needs to get the word out about an emergency or solicit the public's help in solving a case.
Some uses of social media by law enforcement, however, are potentially less benign. Last month, the Denver Post reported that the city's police force had purchased a subscription to Geofeedia, a social media surveillance company. The service, for which the city is reportedly paying $30,000 a year, allows users to monitor all social media activity in a given geographic area and filter for certain phrases or names.
That means that during demonstrations or times of unrest — like the protests against President-elect Donald Trump that drew thousands in Denver last week — police could target a specific area and get a feed of anyone using a particular hashtag, such as #NeverTrump, a popular refrain at those protests.
A promotional video made by the company demonstrating the software on an Israel rally in Chicago might seem almost Orwellian, but all of the people shown in the feed were, after all, posting publicly. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have raised concerns over police using the technology, which they say could have a chilling effect on free speech if people are concerned that police are monitoring what they say online.
The courts have routinely struck down challenges to police using social media during investigations, ruling that there is no expected right to privacy for information shared on platforms like Facebook.
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