Cops using YouTube to find criminals

By the time police in Suffolk, Va., got to the scene of a large street fight on the afternoon of Dec. 14, there wasn’t much to see.

Those involved in the fight had scattered, and witnesses were not talking, police spokeswoman Debbie George said.

Days later, George said, investigators got a break — via YouTube. Cellphone videos of the fight had been posted on the video-sharing website.

“The video itself was very clear,” George said. Police and school resource officers were able to pick out the suspects. Seven people identified in the video are awaiting trial.

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YouTube has no way of knowing how often police tap into its videos to make arrests, company spokesman Scott Rubin said, but police across the country say they are increasingly using YouTube and other online social networks to root out criminals.

“Technology has revolutionized law enforcement in many ways,” said Jack Rinchich, president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. “Sometimes people are pretty liberal about what they put on (social networking sites),” he said.

In January, police in Chattanooga, Tenn., discovered an online forum in which local residents were planning illegal drag races, department spokeswoman Rebecca Royval said. Officers staked out an area where a drag race was expected and ticketed four racers caught in the act.

Los Angeles police used images on YouTube and the photo website Flickr to identify people involved in riots after the June 2009 NBA Championship, Lt. Paul Vernon said.

In November, police in Minneapolis and St. Paul, arrested four people for assault after seeing videos they had posted of themselves, Minneapolis police spokesman Jesse Garcia said.

“For many years, they’ve had (the television show) America’s Dumbest Criminals,” Garcia said. “It’s people like this that feed that.”

People who post such videos do so, in part, because they “believe there is a degree of anonymity on the Internet,” Nashville criminal defense attorney David Raybin said. When he gets a new client, Raybin said, “the first thing I tell them is, ‘You are shutting down your Facebook account.’ “

Rubin said YouTube prohibits content that is intended to incite violence and videos of illegal activities. The company relies on users to flag violators, he said.

Facebook also is aiding police. Garcia said a Minneapolis man accused in a shooting was recently arrested after telling a friend about the crime in a Facebook message. In December, Massachusetts authorities caught a child-rape suspect after learning about his whereabouts on Facebook, state police spokesman Dave Procopio said.

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