Chris Bonnet

Social media sites are becoming an important investigative tool for solving crimes. With over 940 million users all over the world, sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Craigslist provide insightful information to law enforcement.

Photo Credit: Pu Ying Huang | Daily Texan Staff

The Internet connects all sorts of people — friends with friends, strangers with strangers, employers with employees and, to the chagrin of culprits worldwide, law enforcement with criminals.

It’s an eyebrow-raising concept — police officers combing Craigslist, Twitter and Facebook statuses for evidence of wrongdoing. But with more than 940 million social networking users worldwide, according to InSites consulting, what people share online has become an important element of crime investigation. A whole new crime-fighting venue has emerged and authorities in cities from London to New York to right here on campus have taken notice.

“It’s become one of our go-to things in almost any investigation if we’re looking for someone or something,” said UT Police Department Sgt. Chris Bonnet. “We’ll look on different social media sites, and not just social media, but also Craigslist or eBay if we’re looking for property. If we’re looking for a person, almost always we’ll look at social media, just to see what’s out there.”

Law enforcement agencies internationally have similar ideas. During the recent chaos in the UK, Scotland Yard and other organizations tracked down looters with their incriminating photos and posts on Facebook and Twitter — tools that the looters themselves used to organize. And in August, the New York Police Department announced the creation of a unit whose job, according to the New York Daily News, is to “mine social media, looking for info about troublesome house parties, gang showdowns and other potential mayhem.”

Unlike the NYPD, Bonnet said UTPD doesn’t “fish” for random troublemakers, which would require a lot of resources the department doesn’t have and might send the wrong message to students.

“I don’t think UTPD would ever be the type of department that’s digging into peoples’ business with no cause to,” Bonnet said. “That would kind of cut down on our proactive surfing around. People say things all the time that could be taken out of context. We like to have some kind of context before we go looking at peoples’ Facebook pages.”

Instead, Bonnet and other on-campus police officers employ methods that have been instrumental in solving numerous cases. They use photos and posts that students and staff share on the Internet to provide insight and clues to ongoing investigations. These online observations aren’t necessarily useful in court, but online updates that identify where people were and what they were doing at specific times are “very useful” when it comes to confirming what’s true or not.

“It’s useful in any number of things,” Bonnet said. “If we have someone who is maybe a person of interest or a suspect, it doesn’t hurt to see what kind of pictures they have or what they’re saying about themselves online. What they say their favorite movie is or who they admire can tell you whether or not they might be the person you’re interested in.”

UTPD’s jurisdiction extends throughout the 40 Acres and also on the University’s off-campus sites, leaving other student-heavy areas such as West Campus, Riverside and Far West to the Austin Police Department’s watch. APD didn’t return calls for comment, so how the organization uses social media to do its job is unclear. Bonnet said that they at least use it the same way UTPD does — it’s a necessary element in many investigations.

“We’d be foolish not to look at social media,” Bonnet said. “It’s a great source of information for us.”

Printed on September 8, 2011 as: Police scour social media for evidence

News Briefly

Early Sunday morning, a burglary was reported in Moore-Hill Dormitory. The UT Police Department said the suspect has not been identified.

A student reported that she woke up to find a male on top of her while she was in bed, and that he fled when she resisted, said UTPD Sgt. Chris Bonnet, the lead investigator on the case.

“We’ve conducted interviews, but I wouldn’t call them suspects,” he said. “We are continuing to ask the community for information on the suspect.”

The suspect was described as an Asian male with short straight black hair wearing a white T-shirt and black shorts. Students should remain aware that the assailant is still around and possibly on campus, Bonnet said.

“It’s important to keep your door locked and to be aware of your surroundings,” he said. “If you feel like someone’s watching or following you then you should trust your instincts, and don’t hesitate to call UTPD.”

The three men responsible for on-campus criminal investigations said they have been exceptionally busy because of the higher amount of unusual cases this year. The UT Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Unit, comprised of one sergeant and two detectives, used to conduct all aspects of an investigation, including interviewing witnesses and forming a suspect lineup. In 2003, the department switched to a new system, which gave patrol officers more responsibility for seeing a case through conviction. Now, the majority of the unit’s duties include assisting officers with investigations. “A large part of what we do is to facilitate their investigation, assist them with tools and expertise,” said Sgt. Chris Bonnet. “It’s beneficial to the department, the officers and the public because they get to deal with the same person throughout the investigation instead of being pushed from one person to the next.” The unit helps patrol officers acquire new leads when officers may not have the time or resources to pursue suspects. Detective Michael Riojas said not all officers have access to some resources, such as the Texas Department of Public Safety’s photo files, so the unit gathers the information and works in collaboration with an officer. The unit generally covers high-profile cases, including when UT mathematics sophomore Colton Tooley fired several rounds of his AK-47 on campus before taking his own life on Sept. 28, and the charges of improper photography against former UT women’s track equipment manager Rene Zamora. But property crimes are the most prevalent on campus, Riojas said. Bonnet said the hardest cases to work on are those which suspects are found years after the crime took place or are never caught because of a lack of evidence. In spring 2009, a male suspect groped several women near bus stops around campus. Police never arrested anyone in connection with the crime. “Sometimes you never will, so you’ll work a case as hard as you can and still have no known payoff,” he said. “And sometimes you know in your heart and in your brain who the suspect is, but you are not able to prove that or substantiate that enough for court.” Bonnet said he relies on the next case to move him forward. “You just have to take what you learned from the last case and apply it, and hopefully the next one will turn out better,” he said. The investigative process typically includes getting suspect or property information, gathering witnesses to conduct interviews and suspect lineups, and writing affidavits or complaints to present the case to a judge. However, the process varies depending on the information officers have at the time. “Sometimes, we work some crazy hours just because of our job duties, like going to New York for a day to do an interview and coming back that same day, or doing prisoner transports halfway across the state,” said Detective Joseph Silas. “You just never know what is going to happen.”