YouTube as police tool
Patrolman Brian Johnson of the Franklin, Mass., Police Department studied a surveillance video showing two men using allegedly stolen credit cards at a Home Depot.
But when Johnson didn’t recognize either man, he decided to involve people -- a lot of them -- to help crack the case.
He posted a clip from a security camera on YouTube.com, Google Inc.'s video-sharing website, then e-mailed the clip’s link to about 300 people and organizations, saying the department was looking for the men.
“You don’t have to be a technology wizard to figure out how to watch a video on YouTube,” Johnson said of the decision to post on the site, which hosts millions of amateur and commercial videos.
A few police departments have used YouTube as a law enforcement tool, putting up video of suspects and soliciting help from the Internet-using public in identifying them.
Experts say the idea has promise, but it’s too soon to tell whether it will have staying power amid constantly evolving technologies and the difficulty of making a video stand out among millions. Some also see a risk of fruitless tips, misidentifications or privacy problems.
In Johnson’s case, the suspects were ultimately arrested. Though the video generated publicity and thousands of viewings online, Johnson is quick to credit the success to old-fashioned police work rather than the website.
Said Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, “You’ve got to ask yourself, ‘What’s the penetration? How many people are going to watch it? What would make people watch it?’ ”
Perhaps the most publicized example was in Hamilton, Canada, where police in December posted a 72-second surveillance video on YouTube in hopes of locating a suspect in a fatal stabbing outside a hip-hop concert.
Det. Sgt. Jorge Lasso said the video ultimately received more than 35,000 “hits,” and police had enough information within two weeks for an arrest.
Lasso said it was hard to know what role YouTube played because the clip generated so much media attention.
Although other departments that posted on YouTube relied on a news release to let the public know, Lasso went straight to the population that mattered and announced the clip on websites frequented by hip-hop fans.
“We hoped there would be enough buzz created that people on their own would go to YouTube,” Lasso said.
Though the key witness in the case told police he hadn’t seen the YouTube video, Lasso is skeptical of that claim.
“There’s no way that I’m going to be convinced that a twentysomething didn’t view that YouTube posting,” he said.
Police in Aventura, Fla., working on an open homicide case from 2001, posted video from a supermarket security camera showing the victim chatting with a younger man considered a person of interest in the case. Sgt. Michael Bentolila narrates the video, pointing out a tattoo or birthmark on the man’s arm and telling viewers to note how the man walks.
Bentolila, who publicized the clip through a press release, said he had not received any solid leads.
“This is just something else -- an extra added feature that we can now use to get our message out there on a countrywide or worldwide basis,” he said.
More often, it’s police who find themselves the subject of YouTube posts.
Groups that monitor police behavior use the site to post videos of arrests they believe involved excessive force or abuse. A clip of a Los Angeles officer repeatedly punching a suspect in the face surfaced on the site last year, triggering an FBI investigation.
But police are reversing that dynamic by displaying surveillance footage of suspects.
Experts say it’s logical for departments to use the Web to connect with the public, especially younger Internet users more likely to visit YouTube and more likely, say, to have information about a stabbing outside a hip-hop concert.
“I kind of applaud the fact that police are using the latest tools,” said Michael Brady, a retired police chief in Charlestown, R.I., who teaches criminal law and procedure at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I. “We tend to get stuck in technology deficits. We tend to want to stick with the old tried-and-true.”
O’Donnell, the John Jay professor, said he liked that police were mining the public for information and said interest in real-life crime video speaks to the “natural inclination of people to want to play detective.”
But he worried that a department with limited resources could waste time responding to useless leads -- or receive tips that are inconsistent.
A key question, he said, was “at what point do people just say, ‘Another boring video’ ” and shut it off?