Events over the past few years, most notably the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, 2013, have shown how valuable the public’s help can be to law enforcement.1 Immediately after the Boston Marathon bombing, members of the public sent law enforcement more than 13,000 videos and 120,000 photos from the scene, overwhelming the investigators seeking to bring the Tsarnaev brothers to justice.2 Although there were some issues with the crowdsourced evidence, including its accuracy, law enforcement received a “wake-up call” about the usefulness of crowdsourced evidence.3 Similar to the skepticism when DNA evidence was first introduced, crowdsourced evidence is experiencing an acceptance curve for law enforcement, the public, and the courts. The idea of thousands of “cyber detectives” capturing and submitting evidence to law enforcement has the potential to transform the way crimes are investigated, solved, and prosecuted. To facilitate this transformation, law enforcement must work with a variety of stakeholders to ensure crowdsourced evidence becomes as reliable and as common as DNA.
Law enforcement’s use of crowdsourced evidence is not new.4 In fact, early law enforcement officers in the Wild West used an early type of crowdsourced evidence—the “wanted dead or alive” posters. These posters sought the public’s help in locating the most notorious gunslingers.5 A more modern way to crowdsource evidence was the television program America’s Most Wanted, where the program sought the public’s help in locating criminals.6 America’s Most Wanted was considered a success and was responsible for capturing some of the most notorious criminals of the era.7 This is but one example how an entity (the police or television program) identifies a person or situation and then asks a particular segment of the public for information.8
We are entering into a new era of policing, one that includes citizen collaboration based on the use of social media.9 According to one poll, 95 percent of citizens said they would be “willing to share pictures, videos, tips, or other evidence if they witnessed a crime or serious incident.”10 One way police can use social media is to disseminate information, for example, by posting it on Twitter.11 Another way is to actively engage the public through crowdsourcing, where the police work with the community to gather information that could otherwise overwhelm law enforcement if sent in at random.12 The infrastructure for this new approach would have to not only support times when law enforcement solicits information from the public, but also accommodate the thousands of tips that are provided from the public, even when such tips are unsolicited.13 Additionally, at this early state of crowdsourcing evidence, issues still need to be addressed regarding the accuracy of the information, the ability of law enforcement to investigate the large quantity of tips, and the ethical concerns of crowdsourcing.14
Law Enforcement Use of Crowdsourcing Evidence
Crowdsourcing is when an organization outsources a task to a crowd of people who provide information or complete a task.15 Advancements in technology, especially in the areas of cellphone abilities and applications, have opened the door to increased crowdsourcing possibilities.16 Already, law enforcement agencies are using apps to crowdsource evidence.17 Additionally, the police have leveraged social media to gather important evidence from the community.18 The idea of crowdsourcing evidence has become so popular that it is a topic of a miniseries on television, Wisdom of the Crowd.19
There are three main areas that need to be addressed to improve crowdsourcing. First, law enforcement needs to establish protocols and systems that allow the sharing of crowdsourced evidence in a manner that is efficient and cost effective, including creating a national database that can be accessed by local, state, and federal agencies. Second, law enforcement needs to work with members of the public to educate them about how crowdsourced evidence is collected, how it is stored, and how will be used. The public will likely be suspicious that law enforcement will become “Big Brother,” so law enforcement will need to work to allay such concerns to encourage information sharing.20 Third, law enforcement needs to work with prosecutors and the courts to help ensure that crowdsourced evidence will meet the court standards and can be used in criminal trials.
An Industry-Standard Crowdsource Evidence System
Law enforcement around the world is already using crowdsourcing to collect evidence.21 Law enforcement columnist Cole Zercoe notes that, “Crowdsourcing video and other digital media for evidence in investigations has played a key role in solving cases and protecting the public.”22 With the advancements in technology, the increased use of social media, and the widespread use of personal digital devices, law enforcement has the opportunity to harness the power of society to prosecute criminals.23 Law enforcement has already seen successes in using crowdsourced evidence to help with the performance of their duties, even when there are no protocols, or standardized way to share such a data.24 For example, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has started down this path by partnering with CitizenGlobal to create an online app, the Large Emergency Event Digital Information Repository (LEEDIR) that “allow[s] anyone to submit photo and video evidence of incidences.”25 This is a cloud-based repository of evidence that was a result of lessons learned from the Boston Marathon bombing.26 Other law enforcement agencies also use the LEEDIR technology. For example, it was used in Santa Barbara to investigate riots in Isla Vista.27 LEEDIR allows “law enforcement agencies to get the storage capacity and secure portal they often don’t have during a major emergency.”28
Despite advances like LEEDIR, though, most policing agencies currently do not have an efficient way to crowdsource information. One obstacle is that systems can crash when too much information is sent; in addition, retrieving information can be difficult and time consuming.29 Steps have been taken by software developers, however, to address these issues. Newly available software platforms offer digital policing solutions that manage digital evidence for police operations, investigations, and court purposes.30 These solutions allow departments to create secure portals where community members can send pictures and videos, and businesses can register their CCTV cameras.31 Additionally, vitalization tools are available that allow “an investigator to select any number of media files… add them to a timeline, visualize them, and synchronously play them back.” These tools “can streamline the entire investigative process and help detectives close cases faster.”32 Ideally, law enforcement leaders should develop a standardized set of procedures regarding acquiring, using, and sharing crowdsourced evidence.33 If law enforcement can accomplish this, it will facilitate their ability to solve crimes, and identify and prosecute criminals.
Failure to address the situation now and provide a strategic plan for the future will leave law enforcement in a state of disarray. Additionally, law enforcement will miss out on the next staple of evidence. The biggest advantage of using crowdsourced evidence is in the numbers. Law enforcement agencies usually allocate one or two detectives to work a case. These detectives and technicians have a limited amount of time and resources per case. However, by embracing the concept of crowdsourced evidence, law enforcement literally has an unlimited number of “detectives” capturing and submitting evidence. Through proper training, these cyber detectives will help filter out the irrelevant data so law enforcement detectives will not waste their time watching idle video. These cyber detectives will see things and capture things that regular detectives and officers might not see.34 Perhaps even more appealing is the low cost of establishing a crowdsource evidence program. Besides the initial hardware and software set up of the system, the cost is low because society is doing much of the research and evidence collection for free.35 However, how to get to that point is a bit trickier to determine.
It’s a simple fact that crowdsourcing can be challenging to manage.36 It involves law enforcement on all different levels: local, county, state, and federal, as well as other types of law enforcement, such as school police and tribal police. To add to the difficulty, each agency may have different perspectives and needs, which will make creating a central databank difficult. In fact, “most departments are hungry for crowdsourced data, but don’t have the storage capacity to handle and expectedly high number of submissions.”37 However, some digital evidence management systems can help to create a databank to help agencies overcome hurdles relating to accessing, sharing, and using the data.
The second challenge related to crowdsourcing is privacy concerns. Law enforcement needs to work with citizens and advocacy groups to address these concerns. It is imperative that the public feels comfortable submitting digital information because “the aggregate data can weave together the day’s events in retrospect.”38 In developing the crowdsourcing program, law enforcement should create an oversight committee made up of community leaders and advocacy group members that will help to establish policies for a crowdsourcing program and function as a review board for allegations of misuse of crowdsourced evidence. Some of the topics this committee can address is the use of the crowdsourced information, the fear of Big Brother, and requirements to view the data (warrant needed to view or public record).
Finally, law enforcement should address any concerns the district attorney and courts will have about using crowdsourced evidence. Concerns will likely be about the authenticity, sharing, and security of the information. Law enforcement should meet with representatives of the district attorney’s office and the courts to understand and provide solutions to the hurdles that will be faced when introducing crowdsourced evidence in court. Some of these concerns can be addressed through digital evidence management software that “automatically tracks who accessed which files and when to protect evidence integrity.”39
In the past, law enforcement did not have the ability to control crowdsourced evidence. The future of crowdsourced evidence is now, allowing anyone (at any time) to send an unlimited amount of evidence to law enforcement by using his or her cellphone.40 Law enforcement agencies need to adequately prepare themselves for a future steeped in crowdsourced evidence. By working together with the public and the courts, law enforcement officials can ensure crowdsourced evidence becomes a powerful tool used not only to solve crimes, but also to successfully prosecute criminals. This can be accomplished through proper planning, educating the public, and working with the courts. If law enforcement agencies can successfully address these three areas, they will be able to access a bounty of evidence that has traditionally not been available.
This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning & action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.
This journal article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it—creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.
The views and conclusions expressed in the Command College Futures Project and journal article are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the CA Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST).
© Copyright 2018
California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training
1 History.com, “Boston Marathon Bombing,” 2014.
2 Cole Zercoe, “Will Axon Citizen Take the Chaos Out of Crowdsourcing?” Oct 20, 2017.
3 Todd Leopold, “Should Criminal Investigations Be Crowdsourced?” CNN, April 23, 2013; James Surowiecki, “The Wise Way to Crowdsource a Manhunt,” The New Yorker, April 23, 2013.
4 Gannon Burgett, “LASD Creates Portal for Submitting Crowd-Sourced Photographic Evidence,” PetaPixel, May 6, 2014.
5 Seth Ferranti, “The History of the Most Wanted Poster,” Huffington Post, December 14,2016.
6 20th Century Fox Television, America’s Most Wanted: America Fights Back (1988-2012).
7 Phil Gibbons, “Criminals on America’s Most Wanted Who Were Never Caught,” Ranker.com, December 12, 2018.
8 20th Century Fox Television, America’s Most Wanted.
9 Johnny Nhan, Laura Huey, and Ryan Broll, “Digilantism: An Analysis of Crowdsourcing and the Boston Marathon Bombings,” The British Journal of Criminology 57, no. 2 (March 2017): 341–361.
10 Linda Haelsen, “95 Percent of Citizens Want to Submit Digital Evidence. But Most Police Departments Don’t Make It Easy,” NICE Systems Ltd., press release, September 19, 2016.
11 Jeremy Crump, “What Are the Police Doing on Twitter? Social Media, the Police and the Public,” Policy & Internet 3, no. 4 (December 2011): 1–27.
12 Nhan, Huey, and Broll “Digilantism.”
13 Leopold, “Should Criminal Investigations Be Crowdsourced?”
14 Hal Hodson, “Nowhere to Hide: The Next Manhunt Will Be Crowdsourced,” New Scientist, April 23, 2013; Leopold, “Should Criminal Investigations Be Crowdsourced?”; Caitlin Dewey, “Crowdsourcing May Have Solved a 20-year Old Case,” The Washington Post, March 10, 2015.
15 Jeff Howe, Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business (New York, NY: Three River Press, 2008).
16Marcus Winter et al., “Case Notes: Turning Crowdsourcing Information into Evidence Trails for Collection Metadata,” (presentation, 2014 Digital Research in the Humanities and Arts conference, Greenwich, London, August 31, 2014).
17 Burgett, “LASD Creates Portal for Submitting Crowd-Sourced Photographic Evidence.”
18 Christopher Stadler, “5 Ways Crowdsourcing Is Battling Crime,” Daily Crowdsource.
19 CBS.com, Wisdom of the Crowd.
20 James Kobielus, “Crowdsourced Surveillance: Next Big App of Big Media,” IBM Big Data & Analytics Hub (blog).
21 Jamie Wilson, “Crowdsourcing and Criminal Investigations: Evidence Management in the Digital World,” NICE Systems Ltd., press release, July 15, 2016.
22 Cole Zercoe, “Crowdsourcing Crime: Why the Public May Be Your Best Investigative Asset,” PoliceOne.com, Mar 23, 2017.
23 Stadler, “5 Ways Crowdsourcing Is Battling Crime.”
24 Burgett, “LASD Creates Portal for Submitting Crowd-Sourced Photographic Evidence.”
25Burgett, “LASD Creates Portal for Submitting Crowd-Sourced Photographic Evidence.”
26 Zercoe, “Crowdsourcing Crime.”
27 Sara E. Wilson, “Cops Increasingly Use Social Media to Connect, Crowdsource,” Government Technology, May 5, 2015.
28 Zercoe, “Crowdsourcing Crime.”
29 Wilson, “Crowdsourcing and Criminal Investigations.”
30 NICE Systems Ltd., “NICE Launches New Digital Policing Solution to Help Law Enforcement Agencies Close More Cases Faster,” press release, October 19, 2015.
31 Wilson, “Crowdsourcing and Criminal Investigations.”
32 Wilson, “Crowdsourcing and Criminal Investigations.”
33 Wilson, “Crowdsourcing and Criminal Investigations.”
34 Stadler, “5 Ways Crowdsourcing Is Battling Crime.”
35 Mokter Hossain and Ilkka Kauranen, “Crowdsourcing: A Comprehensive Literature Review,” Strategic Outsourcing: An International Journal 8, no. 1(May 2015): 2–22.
36 Wilson, “Crowdsourcing and Criminal Investigations.”
37 Haelsen, “95 Percent of Citizens Want to Submit Digital Evidence.”
38 Haelsen, “95 Percent of Citizens Want to Submit Digital Evidence.”
39 Wilson, “Crowdsourcing and Criminal Investigations.”
40 Anjali Khosla, “Walter Scott’s Murder and Unfulfilled Promise of Citizen Media,” Fast Company, December 8, 2017.