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Social media sites are crucial in arson probe

When an arsonist began preying on Hollywood last week, social media sites like Twitter quickly emerged as a clearinghouse for information.

People tweeted when they first saw smoke, shot videos and photos of burning cars on their cellphones, and traded both facts and rumors in rapid stream.

Faced with a quickly changing, highly unusual investigation, L.A. law enforcement agencies embraced Twitter and other forms of social media as never before. Law enforcement and fire agencies essentially joined the conversation, using Twitter and Facebook not only to disseminate information but to get tips and track reports of new fires.

PHOTOS: Southland arson fires

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“This investigation is a social media phenomenon,” said Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Parker. “Early, in terms of the public information office, the PIOs noticed that a lot of the best information was coming from and being distributed by social media. We wanted to speak to the public where the public is, and that is social media.”

Parker said that initially, the L.A. County Fire Department, L.A. Fire Department, LAPD and L.A. County Sheriff’s Department were all using Twitter, Facebook and an internal system to post their individualized information on the arson attacks. But as the sheer number of posts grew, Parker said that a task force made the decision to combine efforts with a common twitter handle (@ArsonwatchLA) and an Arson Watch L.A. Facebook page.

“We got some valuable tips from social media,” Parker said. “I personally passed on to investigators at least three pieces of information from Twitter that were useful.”

Twitter and other social media sites like Nixle are being increasingly used by police and fire officials. The L.A. Fire Department is considered one of the pioneers, tweeting out all major incidents on its one Twitter account. The feed became a key source of information during the fires, sending out the first official word that a suspicious fire had started.

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FULL COVERAGE: Southland arson fires

Some say that it took the arson scare to jolt previously sleepy agencies into the digital world.

WeHo Daily is a popular Twitter feed sending out news tips for the West Hollywood area. Creator Darin Weeks sent out hundreds of tweets over the last several days.

Weeks said he was pleased to see law enforcement embrace the technology. He said that he volunteered for the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Department’s front desk in 2009, sending tweets about streakers and other odd crime when he was off duty.

But when he would return to his volunteer post, he said police told him, “Bad things can happen on Twitter, therefore you are bad.”

But he thinks things are changing now.

“This event has caused law enforcement to really embrace social media for the first time,” Weeks said. “This is a thing that came into play where they can see how it’s essential to informing the community.”

Indeed, LAPD Sgt. Frank Preciado said that a decade ago, officials would have to hold a last-minute neighborhood meeting with fliers to get the word out.

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“By the time we’d be done with that, we’d be behind the curve, at best, 24 hours,” he said. “Now we can turn out information in minutes.”

Social media can disseminate information more quickly. But authorities warned that not all tips from the public are accurate and sometimes criminals will use social media to lead law enforcement astray.

Like so many of his neighbors, West Hollywood resident Timothy Ragan began paying close attention to Twitter when he saw smoke from his window about 3 a.m. Monday. With a carport and luxury vehicles, he first checked to make sure that nothing was amiss. Then he found the proper hashtag, snapped a smartphone photo from his window and started tweeting.

“All I could think about was when Osama bin Laden was killed, and when someone tweeted that helicopters had crashed,” said the 25-year-old designer who lives near Melrose and Croft avenues. “I wanted to be that first person. Obviously I wasn’t.”

matthew.stevens@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com


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