In digital age, social media becoming valuable police tool

SEATTLE -- In Boston, Seattle and cities around the country, more and more Americans with cell phones and social media accounts are helping police solve crimes, whether they know it or not.

When they were tracking down suspects from last year's destructive May Day Riots, Seattle police scoured the Internet looking at cell phone images and videos posted on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Flickr.

The work paid off, and police were able to identify five suspects. And they're not done, either. Officers are still working to identify other suspects, including a man seen in a Youtube video smashing a window at a downtown American Apparel store.

"The key there is to find the time and location that the crime occurred and use that as your epicenter and work around that," said Det. Wes Friesen of the Seattle Police Department.

Friesen said once an image of a crime is captured in a photo or video, detectives begin looking for unique characteristics to help them identify the criminal.

In one recent case, detectives noticed a hole and a distinctive scrape on a criminal's shoe. They searched online and found another photo that shows what appears to be the same man, and they recognized him by his shoes.

"That's just three people sitting at park, however, to me that is the golden nugget," Friesen said.

The heart of the case against the surviving Boston bombing suspect is based on dramatic surveillance video. Court papers say Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is seen placing a backpack at the exact spot of the explosion.

But when law enforcement first posted murky photos of the suspect, the plan backfired and innocent people were accused of the crime via social media.

Hanson Hosein, the University of Washington's director of communication in digital media, said the process works best with clear images and set rules.

"This is ultimately about crowd sourcing," Hosein said. "If you engage in the right way, they will help you."

Hosein said the process works best when police invite the public to comment on suspect photos by going to a specific website, so they can engage one on one with law enforcement.