Monday, June 17, 2013

Social media taking a big role in finding missing people

Posted: Monday, June 3, 2013 

When a 20-year-old Northampton man vanished last year, local police used traditional investigation tools: air and ground search teams, media alerts and missing person fliers.

The family and friends of Brian Shipley, though, turned to cyberspace, creating the Facebook page “Please Help Find Brian Shipley” to gather information about his whereabouts. A friend purchased a Web domain in his name and launched a website that generated more than 25,000 views before Shipley reappeared alive and well three months later.

Earlier this year, the disappearance of 19-year-old Middletown resident Christopher King prompted an outpouring of online activity. A post of King that appeared on the Facebook page for Carl Sandburg Middle School, where he once attended, was shared nearly 10,000 times before King was located alive six days later.
Illustration by Morgaine Ford Workman
The power of social media surfaced again last week after family and friends of a 25-year-old former Middletown man missing in Arizona turned to the outlet to circulate information, gather leads and organize search parties. The “Brian Histand Missing Person”Facebook page has generated more than 1,300 likes as of Friday, four days after it was created.

The law enforcement community, too, is increasingly using social media outlets in missing person cases recognizing the value of crowd-sourcing, the practice of obtaining services or content by soliciting large groups, especially online communities. Police are not only using Twitter and Facebook to disseminate information about missing people, but also they monitor missing individuals’ social media account activities to obtain information on potential whereabouts.
“It’s not just my eyes and the family’s eyes, it’s their friends, their friends, their friends and their friends,” Temple University assistant journalism professor Susan Jacobson said. “It’s really a powerful way to find something outside of your immediate environment, your immediate network.”
Recently the French government announced that its police agencies have abandoned in-progress searches for adults who are missing, but not endangered such as crime victims. Police are instead directing families to turn to social media.
Among the most early, and prolific, users of social media to locate missing people is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which has collaborated with Amber Alert to distribute information on missing and endangered children.
While it may be remembered for its brief, but memorable, milk carton campaign, the NCMEC has maintained a Facebook account with a page for each of the 50 states and pages for the U.S. districts and territories since 2011. It also uses electronic billboards, Twitter, Myspace and YouTube, said Bob Lowery, executive director of the agency’s missing children’s division.
Due to the combination of social media proliferation and the Amber Alert system, missing children are found faster than ever today, said Lowery, a former law enforcement officer. When the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children opened in 1984, the recovery rate for missing children was about 66 percent, he said. Today the recovery rate is 98.5 percent.
“I’d rather follow up 1,000 tips that were bad in the hopes of finding that one that leads to the recovery of a child,” he added.
Locally, the Bensalem Police Department has enthusiastically used social media to enhance police investigations, including those involving missing persons. The department regularly sends out alerts on Twitter and Facebook seeking the public’s help.
Most recently, the department launched a smart phone application that provides the public with department contacts, lets individuals submit a tip, commend an officer, or ask a question.
“Any way of broadcasting information out about a crime, any media source that we can get out to the public as rapidly as possible, is a major advantage than what we had years ago,” Bensalem Sgt. Andrew Aninsman said. “We’re successful when we put anything on Facebook and Twitter.”
The Northampton police are in the process of developing a dedicated social media site and hope to open a Facebook page and possibly a Twitter account within the next few months.
Northampton Detective Sgt. William Klein believes that the combination of old-fashion police investigation and online resources ultimately helped police locate Brian Shipley and verify that he was safe.
“In this specific investigation, the use of social media outlets by the friends and family of our missing person was extremely instrumental in disseminating relevant information to the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time,” Klein said. “Individuals that were unlikely to have been associated with (Shipley), and may not have been interviewed, were able to contact us.”
Not everyone in law enforcement has embraced social media as an investigation tool. Among the skeptics is Falls Lt. Todd Pletnick.
While information is critical, particularly in a missing person investigation, Pletnick pointed out that social media tips are essentially hearsay, unfounded or, at worst, misleading. For police to investigate bad information wastes not only time, but resources, he said.
The impersonal nature of online resources also makes Pletnick uncomfortable. The online venue may attract attention seekers who are inclined to embellish or make up information, he said.
“People are less likely to lie to your face. We want to see eyeballs and lips move, rather than speculation over these social media things,” Pletnick added. “Everyone wants to be a street detective, then (police) are on the hook for every piece of that information.”
But investigators such as Bensalem’s Aninsman pointed out that online tips pose no greater accuracy risk than the ones called into hotlines, a tool that police have used for years.
Social media doesn’t replace old-fashion investigation, but provides the community an avenue to get involved, he added.
“As part of our job we get information that isn’t valid,” Aninsman said. “I’d rather get information that turns out to be invalid than no information at all.”

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