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Police work involving social networking sites to generate tips

It was about midnight when a man walked into a Hillsborough County convenience store and went straight for the Four Loko.

He stole a can and, confronted by a clerk, went crazy. He swung the can and crashed it on the clerk's head. Then he punched the clerk, beat him to the ground and kicked him in the face.

Hundreds watched a 51-second surveillance video of the incident on the sheriff's YouTube channel. Then detectives got a call from someone who recognized the Four Loko man.

Two days after the video was posted, deputies arrested Sandro Louis Sarda, 31, on a charge of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.

Tampa Bay's law enforcement agencies have joined the rest of the world on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. They want the websites to generate a steady source of tips. But they're not quite there yet.

Agencies around the country use social media to share information with the public and as an investigative tool. FBI agents, for instance, create fake profiles to interact with suspects, sometimes leading to arrests.

In Arizona, two men were arrested after police found Facebook posts considered threatening to their former high school. Both spent a few days in jail before apologies were posted and charges were dropped.

Around Tampa Bay, social media pages for most law enforcement agencies are about a year old or younger. Some are more active than others.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has 300 Facebook "fans,'' which allows them to stay updated with developments, but barely any comments. The St. Petersburg Police Department has more than 2,000 fans who follow updates.

On YouTube, the Pasco Sheriff's Office has nearly 40,000 hits for its videos. The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office has more than 360,000.

Concerns about keeping proper public records prompted Tampa to bar the Tampa Police Department from having its own Facebook page. Instead, the city maintains a page on Facebook and Twitter with information for all agencies, aiming to lead readers back to the city's website.

For other agencies, people cheer on the police in posts about arrests, exclamation marks aplenty. Police say the pages help them connect to their communities and humanize officers.

But the biggest goals are to give and get information.

On a Hillsborough Facebook post about a hit-and-run crash, Misty Hale wrote, "wow I really wish I could help! But I will share with my friends."

• • •

Gang members are showoffs. And they're online.

They brag before committing a crime. They post pictures of gang signs and guns. They don't hide their affiliations.

"People are very vain these days," said Marc Wilder, a Hillsborough gang unit detective. "They put this information out there for the world to see, and they think only friends see it, but the whole world can see it."

Social networks have dramatically changed police work, Wilder said, and he sees more and more detectives using them, but usually only for big cases. Wilder has used them every day for years because it works.

Raw Dawgs gang member Leland Johnson posed with a gun in a MySpace picture before he was accused in 2006 of shooting at a car in Brandon and killing a teenager. Wilder saw the photo. He presented it to a grand jury.

Johnson was convicted and is serving four life sentences without parole.

• • •

Less than 24 hours after the late-night shooting death of a St. Petersburg officer, police released a surveillance video of a suspect.

The video showed a hooded figure walking in the dark. Police hoped someone would recognize him. The more people watched, the more would talk about it, police thought, and the talk would turn into tips.

The video played on YouTube, Facebook and television. Thousands saw it, including the mother of Nicholas Lindsey.

Tips already had led police to the teenager. But as the video continued to play online more tips came in, helping police fill in missing pieces of the puzzle.

A couple hours after the video's release, the 16-year-old was answering detectives' questions.

The video remains on YouTube, and people keeping watching it — more than 14,000 views so far. Police hope people who watch it will be drawn to videos of suspects in other crimes.

Someone might recognize something.

It could be all detectives need.

Information from the Arizona Daily Star and the Associated Press and Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Ileana Morales can be reached at (813)226-3386 or imorales@sptimes.com.

Police work involving social networking sites to generate tips 04/11/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 12, 2011 11:47am]
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