Cops in the Brownsville area of Brooklyn are dealing with one of New York City’s most crime-infested areas by spending more time on Facebook. That’s where they’ve found plenty of evidence of illegal gun possession and are nabbing criminals who post pictures of themselves living la vida loca.
Stats Support Facebook Strategy
Officers and detectives in the 73rd Precinct in Brownsville spend part of their shifts every week on Facebook, looking for pictures of weapons and evidence of gang activity, according to the Daily News. And it’s working.
Compared to statistics for the rest of the city, in Brownsville cops took more illegal guns off the streets in 2012 than the year before. Gangsters apparently post pictures of themselves with guns, drugs and money, and it doesn’t take cops long to track them down.
“We have identified the bad guys and we are going after them,” Deputy Inspector Joseph Gulotta, the precinct commander, told the Daily News. “Social media has changed everything.”
Residents in Brownsville have reportedly noticed a difference in their neighborhood, saying they see less violence. Even the NYCLU – one of the NYPD’s more active watchdogs – was complimentary of the program, according to the Daily News.
A Picture Worth 1,000 Words – and Jail Time
Criminal lawyers say law enforcement’s tactic of using Facebook to nab people who brag about their crimes is fairly common. The social media evidence is often used to corroborate other evidence police already have, says Joseph Esparza, a criminal defense lawyer with Gross & Esparza, PLLC in San Antonio, Texas.
“Sometimes, postings by defendants can tip off police as to location,” says Esparza. Even worse for them is when they brag to others on Facebook about getting away with it or post photos themselves, he adds. “These are the things that usually land them in hot water.”
Law enforcement can use social media in several ways. “Cops can create a fake profile and attempt to friend the suspect, who, if accepted, gives access to his public information,” Esparza points out. “After that, [the police] can look at all of the voluntarily posted materials of the person.”
Another way to gather the evidence is to subpoena Facebook, which “will many times produce all postings, pictures, detailed log information on the account, etc., in response to the law enforcement subpoena,” he says.
And with pictures – the lifeblood of social media – defendants go down hard. “Photographs are the one type of evidence that juries love in every trial because you don’t need an expert to explain them,” Esparza says. “It is what it is, and if it shows the defendant in a compromising position in relation to his case, it can be game over.
Cuts Both Ways
But sometimes it’s not that easy. “It is rare that Facebook alone will convict a defendant,” Esparza notes. “This is still a new issue, in that law enforcement is still relying on the older standbys for case closure, such as forensics, DNA, witness statements, confessions, etc.”
Also, criminal defense lawyers often use Facebook and other social media to turn the tables and find evidence that helps their clients. Esparza says he’s personally seen defendants cleared at trial and has used complaining witnesses’ messages to his clients to show a different story than they told the cops.
“Remember that you have the ability to print and save every post and message from Facebook,” he says. “In this regard, social media has utility for both sides in litigation.”
Finally, even though courts pretty consistently treat Facebook and other social media data as public information (“It’s not like going through someone’s mail,” Esparza says), no one’s had the last word. “Litigation will be forthcoming on this issue once its use becomes more prevalent in the courtroom by law enforcement,” he predicts.