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Facebook, texting help police investigations
[July 25, 2011]

Facebook, texting help police investigations


Jul 24, 2011 (The Montana Standard - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- The young man in the photograph on his Facebook page is wearing a hoodie, flashing a "gang sign" with one hand and in the other has more than two dozen $100 bills fanned out before him.

Deputy County Attorney Samm Cox chuckles at the photo like a big-league slugger looking at a fastball coming straight down the middle of the plate.

The man is the subject of an ongoing drug dealing investigation. And this photo could be used as evidence if the case ever goes to trial.


Looks like a grand slam.

"The Internet has made it (prosecuting people) so much simpler," Cox said.

Over the past few years, police and prosecutors have found that sites such as Facebook, Twitter and other social media are great places to look for incriminating evidence. Police have been able to use Internet chat rooms or cell phone text messages to gather clues and make arrests in numerous criminal investigations. Local prosecutors surf through cyberspace for damning photographs or messages that often lead to convictions.

"It's just so amazing what people will put out there (on the Internet)," Cox said.

FACEBOOK OPTION Facebook is the center of the ever-expanding social media universe. This site is where people can create their own profiles (sort of a personal Web page) and voluntarily put out personal information and photographs on it. These profiles can be updated with new information at any time, and shared with as many friends as they like.

Prosecutors are using what people post on their profiles or their Twitter accounts as evidence in building a criminal case. Some people will post photos of them smoking suspected marijuana. Some juveniles voluntarily post pictures of themselves drinking alcohol.

Cox said his office recently prosecuted a man trying to solicit a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl via the Craigslist networking site. Craigslist acts like a free, online classified ad site for people seeking jobs, selling stuff and, commonly, for personal ads.

Butte police Capt. Doug Conway said his detectives have made four arrests in the last two years that started with text messages sent to cell phones or computers. These cases usually start with a parent discovering inappropriate texts on their child's cell phone; they turn it over to police. An officer will pretend to be the child and continue to send text messages.

These cases often end up with the adult suspect trying to set up a meeting with the juvenile, Conway explained.

"They think they're going to meet up with the youth, but then run into Lt. Ed Lester and they're very surprised," Conway said.

The use of the Internet as an investigative tool by Butte law enforcement started about 10 year ago, according to Cox. Over the years, Cox said his office and detectives have tried to stay up-to-date on the various search engines and social media sites.

Websites like Spokeo provide phone numbers, addresses and other personal information about a subject. Google Earth can provide investigators with satellite images that can zoom in directly on a person's home.

"We can find information that once took us hours that we can now get in just a few seconds," Cox said.

PRO-ACTIVE Butte police also are hoping to use social media in what it claims to be a pro-active way of law enforcement.

In April, the police department launched its first page on Facebook. Sgt. Jimm Kilmer said the department needs to get with the times by finding modern ways to communicate with the public.

"When you look at the stats and how many people use social media, it makes sense," he said.

Kilmer wants to use the department's Facebook page to get tips and police news out to the public. The page has been used to give crime prevention tips, such as leaving lights on to detract burglaries, and asking the public for help to solve crimes.

When the lights to the "Big M" on Big Butte were shot out last April, Kilmer put a post on the department's Facebook wall seeking information on who committed the crime. No tips have come from this post, and the crime remains unsolved, but Kilmer said it's still worth getting the information out to the public. There is no cost to having a Facebook page.

Capt. Conway believes this page will be a good way to communicate with younger people.

"Young people just don't read newspapers anymore and we think this is a way to get information to them," Conway said.

However, as of Friday, the police's Facebook page has only 73 "likes," which means updates from police can only be sent to 73 Facebook pages.

Kilmer said he hoping to push Facebook and keep it updated with current information. People can access the Facebook page by searching Butte-Silver Bow Law Enforcement Department.

- Reporter John Grant Emeigh may be reached via e-mail at john.emeigh@lee.net To see more of The Montana Standard, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.mtstandard.com. Copyright (c) 2011, The Montana Standard, Butte Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For more information about the content services offered by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT), visit www.mctinfoservices.com.

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