Social media is increasingly used in the commission of violent crime. It is also a treasure trove of potential evidence that can help prosecutors and law enforcement to hold offenders accountable. In 2016, in an effort to keep pace with evolving criminal tactics, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office (ECPO) began systematically mining social media for evidence of gun-related offenses. The office used IPS funds to create a Special Prosecution Unit (SPU), assigning an assistant prosecutor (AP) to develop evidence via social media in select cases and to identify additional suspects via social network analysis (SNA).
The dedicated AP received specialized training on social media investigations from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. Equipped with this enhanced investigative skill set, the AP began partnering closely with local law enforcement to identify new cases for social media investigation and screen existing cases for potential social media evidence. As the AP worked to identify a suspect’s online presence, he also trained local law enforcement to increase their social media investigative efforts on the front end of a case. The trainings were well-received by law enforcement, who recognized social media’s untapped potential. Suspects would not only use these websites to facilitate their offenses; they would also post trails of incriminating evidence in their wake — such as pictures of individuals brandishing firearms, cash, or property that was potentially associated with a crime.
ECPO’s social media strategy led to many demonstrated successes over the course of the agency’s IPS project. In one instance, prosecutors were able to go forward with a case against a defendant charged in a non-fatal shooting, even though the victim was unable to testify. This case would have otherwise been dismissed, but social media evidence revealed critical proof of the identity of the shooter, who ultimately pleaded guilty. In another case, social media evidence helped law enforcement identify and disrupt a network of juvenile gang members who were sharing firearms that were connected to multiple shootings.
Researchers from Rutgers University’s Center on Policing (COP), who conducted an analysis of ECPO’s strategy, found that systematically reviewing cases for social media evidence can lead to a variety of improved outcomes, including identifying suspects, corroborating evidence, increasing charges and/or pleas, and even intervening to prevent gun violence at schools. The researchers compared cases in which social media evidence was developed with those for which no social media evidence was developed, revealing an increase in convictions and a decrease in case dismissals and acquittals. COP also determined that social media evidence was found in twice as many cases handled by the SPU than handled by the office generally. As a result of their success, the SPU is now a permanent unit within the ECPO.
According to ECPO and its partners at Rutgers, the involvement of the SPU AP from the outset of the case was key in identifying and preserving social media evidence. Prosecutors and investigators may require training on the identification, preservation, collection and presentation of social media to increase their comfort level with handling this type of evidence. Judges may also require training or a thorough briefing on social media evidence to make appropriate rulings on its admission at trial. Overall, ECPO’s IPS initiative demonstrated that social media evidence assists in identifying suspects, solving cases, and developing corroborating evidence for improved prosecution outcomes.
Joe Giordano — Former Supervising Assistant Prosecutor, Special Prosecutions Unit, ECPO
Rosalyn Bocker Parks, Ph.D. — Research Project Manager, Center on Policing, Rutgers University