Social media is helping revolutionise the way police fight crime and it’s playing a key role in the reporting of sexual abuse and assaults, experts say.
Australian police forces were early adopters of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, regularly using them to publish appeals for help and access potential witnesses and tip-offs.
It is (in some cases) a demonstrably faster way to catch crooks.
But social media is also playing a key role in the reporting of crime, particularly sex offences where victims may be ashamed or afraid to speak face-to-face with authorities.
Carolyn Worth, manager of the Centre Against Sexual Assault’s (CASA) southeast branch, says young people in particular feel more comfortable disclosing incidents via social media.
“It has been our experience that social media has assisted people to disclose sexual assaults that they would not feel comfortable discussing either in person or over the telephone,” she told AAP.
“It has been amazing how many people have accessed our websites and social media and have disclosed sexual assault and asked for information and assistance.”
CASA plans to launch a new app in January that will make it even easier for people to report sex attacks or abuse.
The plan came about after the disappearance of Melbourne woman Jill Meagher in September.
Adrian Ernest Bayley, 41, has since been charged with Ms Meagher’s rape and murder.
That case, like many others, was extensively publicised on Facebook and other social media sites.
And while there are plenty of downsides to that sort of coverage – some comments on websites can jeopardise court cases – many senior police think the pros outweigh the cons.
“Having the ability to use Facebook and Twitter has changed the way some cases are run,” one police officer told AAP.
Queensland Police were among the earliest adopters of social media and claim to have one of the largest online audiences (20 million) in the world for a police force.
“Its worth is demonstrated by a recent murder case in regional Queensland,” a Queensland Police spokesman told AAP.
“A man was killed in a pub late one Friday night.
“By 2am, we had located about seven eyewitnesses to the event. Investigating officers were quite amazed that potentially days (if not weeks) of legwork was done for them by one Facebook post.”
In another recent example, Queensland Police posted details of a police chase and arrest.
A truck driver responded within minutes to offer video footage of the incident, taken on his dashboard-mounted camera.
At certain times of the day, about half of all public information passed to Queensland Police comes from social media sites.
NSW Police was another early adopter of social media and regularly uses Facebook to appeal for help.
The value of this tactic was shown in October when two men were charged with assaulting a Sydney taxi driver after a tip-off via Facebook.
Earlier that month, missing four-year-old Riley Martin, who has Down syndrome, was found at Nambucca Heads, in NSW’s north, after a family heard about him on Facebook.
Both Northern Territory and Victoria Police place a high value on social media.
“Social media is an awesome way for us to connect with the community and disseminate public safety messages in a timely manner with a broad reach,” an NT Police spokesman told AAP.
Only Tasmania Police and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) do not have any social media presence.
However, there are some downsides to using it.
Former AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty raised concerns last year about social media potentially hindering officers working on undercover investigations.
He suggested that criminals could use photographic image recognition technology to identify police officers.
“You won’t be able to hide anywhere in the world because your image is a global image,” Mr Keelty told the ABC.
Another downside is that not everyone, particularly the elderly, has access to Facebook or Twitter and so may not see the information distributed by police online.