Web profiles new source for police
Networking sites tip off law enforcement on illegal activities such as underage drinking, illegal possession of firearms

The Charlotte Observer | December 06, 2006
By Melissa Manware and Dánica Coto

When police went to search a Wilmington house for stolen PlayStation 3 consoles last week, they brought heavily armed deputies because a picture on the Internet had made them think the college students inside might be armed.

Investigators had found an online photograph of a man who hung out at the house posing with two others and what appeared to be an assault rifle, pistols and a shotgun.

Millions of young people post their personal thoughts and photographs in cyberspace. And law enforcement has begun combing through it in search of useful information about the lives of young people -- and evidence of crimes.

"We've got to pay attention to it," said Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Capt. Eddie Levins, who heads the Intelligence and Organized Crime Division. "Years ago, we'd go to bars and read cards on the walls to learn who was selling dope. Now kids are putting all kinds of stuff (on these sites). These have become intelligence tools for us."

Levins said police use MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and other sites to find young people wanted for crimes. They also use the sites to learn what's happening in schools and neighborhoods, and get an idea what kids are talking about.

Most commonly it's detectives in the gang and intelligence units who troll the sites, but Levins said more officers are getting trained because the sites have become so popular -- and young people are so frank on them.

He said the department doesn't keep files on young people who post photographs of themselves with guns or flashing gang signs. But if a person already is the subject of an investigative file, detectives will add anything interesting they find online.

In New Hanover County, snapshots found on the Internet prompted UNC Wilmington police to bring those heavily armed deputies when they went to search the house for stolen video consoles, according to a search warrant. In the end, authorities shot Peyton Strickland, an 18-year-old student at Cape Fear Community College, in the foyer of the home. The SBI is investigating his death.

Two friends of Strickland, Braden Riley, 21, and Ryan David Mills, 20, have been charged with robbery with a dangerous weapon, assault with a deadly weapon and breaking and entering a motor vehicle in the case.

Riley's attorney questioned the charges against his client. And friends of Mills criticized UNCW campus police Tuesday, saying they misinterpreted a teenage prank as a threat. The photo, which friends said captures a smirking Mills holding a rifle, was a joke, friends told The (Raleigh) News & Observer.

Fred Stutzman, a doctoral student in information science at UNC Chapel Hill, said young people who post their profiles online often don't realize police may be looking at them.

Officers, though, have to remember that digital pictures can be altered, and also that those posing with gang signs or toting guns often are simply mimicking what they see in movies or on CD covers, he said.

A study last year found that half the nation's teens -- 12 million youths -- have created content on the Internet.

Officials at MySpace, one of the most popular social networking sites, say they frequently assist police in investigations. The site also offers safety advice for users and their parents.

Two months ago, after a 17-year-old was charged with having an assault-style rifle outside an West Mecklenburg High football game, a Charlotte crime blogger posted photographs of that teen and more than a dozen others posing either with guns or flashing gang signs. The photographs, according to the blog, were taken from MySpace, and depicted Charlotte-area teens.

Levins said it's not illegal to pose with a gun, unless you are a convicted felon. Even then, he said, it would be difficult to prove the gun is real.

"There are air soft guns that look just like real guns," he said. Getting a conviction would require more proof than a MySpace picture, he said.

But police across the country are using the Internet as part of criminal investigations:

In Pennsylvania, police used photographs posted on Webshots.com to place teenage crash victims at a party where beer and rum were served, according to court documents.

In Colorado, a 16-year-old was charged with illegal gun possession after authorities said he posted photos on MySpace showing himself holding guns.

Police at Penn State used Facebook to find unruly football fans who rushed the field after a win against Ohio State University.

Dr. Phyllis Gerstenfeld, chair of the criminal justice department at California State University, said the sites are not an ideal investigative tool because people can lie online. But workers have gotten into trouble as a result of what they've posted, she said.

"If you're going to post something on the Internet," she said, "you should have the expectation that anybody's going to look at it."