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Cops go online to get a clue


This news story was published on December 25, 2011.
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C.J. Lin, Daily News, Los Angeles –

When Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies in the Antelope Valley saw an explosion in the number of graffiti and monikers of taggers painting the town, they barely had to leave the station to ID the perps.

The evidence was in plain view right on Facebook and Myspace — pictures of the crew’s work, videos of taggers bragging and discussion about graffiti they were planning to do and even where to steal or buy paint.

It was enough for deputies to serve search warrants. In May, they arrested 10 suspected members of crew FDK, all juveniles, who are believed to have caused an estimated $1.3 million in damages by tagging signs, poles, sidewalks, bridges, buildings and electrical boxes in Lancaster and Palmdale.

“If they get seen, if their product, their name gets seen, then that gives them credibility with friends,” said Sheriff’s Department spokesman Capt. Mike Parker. “As a result, it is commonplace for them in order to amplify the message – just like a business would amplify their message – to put it on social media, which ironically, fortunately, provides us a means by which to ID them and arrest them.”

The case is one of many growing examples of law enforcement using social media as an investigative tool – and of criminals miscalculating when they brag about or discuss their misdeeds on public forums.

Bad behavior that rarely came to investigators’ attention before Facebook and Twitter is now on full display once the cops

know where to look.

Criminals have gone online in not-so-private venues to find and communicate with potential victims, fence stolen property, and even implicate themselves in their hijinks – unknowingly or not.

Last week, a Chicago man was charged with aggravated domestic battery after a picture he posted on Facebook of his 22-month-old daughter bound at the wrists and legs and gagged with painter’s tape went viral.

Andre Curry, 21, had posted the photo with the caption: “This is wut happens wen my baby hits me back. ;)”

His attorney claims the picture was a joke.

“People’s lives are now exposed and transparent on social media,” said Karen North, director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities at the University of Southern California. “People believe they’re having private conversations and posting private things about themselves that even if you post to your friends, they can pass it on.”

And it’s been a score for law enforcement since social networking use skyrocketed in the last five years, North said.

“If a kid is assaulted or raped, you can look at his or her Facebook page and look at their feed, and see who’s been messaging them and see if they’ve been solicited,” North said. “Police now have another way of investigating things and watching people’s movements.”

Just last week, the Sheriff’s Department announced the arrest of 19-year-old Michael C. Downs, who is charged with using Facebook to meet and have sex with at least 14 underage girls, some as young as 12, in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Downs, on another social networking site, Formspring, admitted that he was dating a 13-year-old girl, and defended himself to anonymous critics who said the girls were too young by saying he was not a predator because he is still a teenager.

Parker noted that it is tough to argue innocence when you’ve posted comments with information that only the suspect and victim could have. The increase in crime information available on social media is so large that the department has put together a special group to analyze it.

Los Angeles Police Department investigators in South L.A. made three arrests in an October slaying after monitoring chatter on Facebook helped them confirm their suspects, according to Detective Sal LaBarbera, a homicide supervisor.

“The people that we wanted to talk about it, spoke about it,” LaBarbera said. “They were already people we had our eye on.”

But it’s a bit of a double-edged sword – while some criminals are taking to social networking to find victims and discuss or brag about their conquests, the sheer amount of information and endless iterations mean cops have a lot more to filter through. Then there’s the question of what constitutes an actual threat, cyberbullying or just old-fashioned trash talking.

“We can’t monitor everything and it’s like drinking out of a fire hose,” said Capt. John Romero of LAPD Mission Division. “Or even worse, like drinking out of the spillway at Hoover Dam. You’re not going to be able to get everything.”

Last month, Mission police arrested a juvenile after a youth league football game in Sylmar between the Northridge Knights and North Valley Golden Bears. The boy had broken another boy’s arm in what referees deemed a legal hit.

But then messages he had sent on Facebook to the victim before and after the game surfaced that indicated the hit may have been planned, Romero said.

“…so who kant hit nd hits like a girl anthony?” the boy posted on the victim’s wall after. “Told yhu imma break yo damn arm and second half ima kill you.”

But the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office rejected the case based on lack of merit, Romero said.

“So there are some definitely some disadvantages,” Romero said. “It’s easily distracting because there’s so much bogus stuff out there, and (suspects) can be in Bangalore pretending to be in L.A. and drain off a ton of (police) resources.”

Social workers are also making it common practice to check social networking sites of parents in child endangerment cases for evidence like the photo Curry posted of his daughter.

For example, they might look for photos of youths in gang attire, drinking, using drugs or posing with weapons, said Xiomara Flores-Holguin, law enforcement liaison with the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services.

It may even soon become department policy, she said.

“It’s not policy, it’s not procedure, but it’s something we may have have to look at in the future because it’s the sign of the times,” Flores-Holguin said. “We need to start paying attention to what’s online.”

That’s exactly what LAPD’s LaBarbera, a seasoned Twitter user with more than 4,500 followers, hopes people are doing.

LaBarbera, a 30-year veteran of the force, will post updates from a murder scene and other information to generate awareness that he hopes will bring in tips about victims and suspects.

“We try to keep up with technology,” LaBarbera said. “It’s just another resource.”

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