A Digital Strategy for Homicide Investigations
By Topher Hopkins
May 16, 2019
With over 50% of homicides going unsolved in cities across America (Rich, Mellnick, Kelly, Lowery)Law Enforcement Agencies (LEA) need to find new and better ways to reach their communities and encourage the public to report crime. LEA are one of the biggest and most well-known brands in the world. Since commercial brands are using Social Media Marketing (SMM) technology to generate brand trust and leads to close sales, law enforcement should use these same marketing tactics to gain the public’s trust, create greater community engagement, and to help generate leads that can close a homicide case.
In the New York Times article, “In Las Vegas, Murder Strains a Force Used to Solving Them” Healy and Williams discuss the Las Vegas Police Department (LVPD) and the challenges detectives face when investigating homicides and murder. Healy and Williams note that “Las Vegas is in the midst of a dramatic rise in homicides. The rising murder rate is now testing whether the 19 homicide detectives at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department can keep solving those crimes as new calls pour in.” With limited time and personnel, LVPD needs help solving their most troubling and challenging cases.
The LVPD is not alone in their struggles. In 2018, The Washington Post revealed the results of a ten-year survey that shows “out of 54,868 homicides in 55 cities over the past decade, 50 percent did not result in an arrest” (Rich, Mellnick, Kelly, Lowery). Cities like Baltimore have actually seen a rise in their homicide rates without any increase in solving them, what some in the community are calling an “Open Season in Killing” (Lowery, Rich, Georges par. 1):
Baltimore has seen a stunning surge of violence, with nearly a killing
each day for the past three years in a city of 600,000, homicide arrests
have plummeted. City police made an arrest in 41 percent of homicides
in 2014; last year,  the rate was just 27 percent, a 14-percentage
point drop. (Lowery, Rich, Georges)
Baltimore and Las Vegas are not alone; places like San Bernardino, Chicago, Omaha and even our country’s capital, Washington D.C., are seeing similar statistics (Rich, Mellnick, Kelly and Lowery). With an alarming rate of homicides going unsolved in many of America’s largest cities, it is clear LEA need new investigation techniques to help keep our communities safe.
My experiences have given me unique insights into the challenges detectives face when asking for help in communities where relationships are strained with LEA. I have witnessed the impact violence has on communities while working as a documentary producer for several law enforcement and first responder programs, including The First 48, Live Rescue, Crime 360, and nightmare Next Door, to name a few. I have crossed the crime scene tape dozens of times, interviewed hundreds of law enforcement officials, and spoken to many devastated families and community members.
But the tipping point for my interest in helping, rather than documenting, investigations came when I was interviewing a woman named “Jackie” (not her real name) who escaped from a world of crime that she was born into. She told me that growing up she was sheltered, manipulated, and abused by a group that is known for breaking federal and state laws; the group is the Fundamental Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) whose leader is currently serving a life sentence for illegally marrying two underaged brides. Growing up in the FLDS, Jackie said she hoped the police would show up one day and stop the madness, but that never happened. Instead, at the age of 23, Jackie finally escaped, fleeing with her three children into the middle of the night. This interview with her was the moment I realized people often want to come forward to report a crime or to ask for help, but they do not have a comfortable or modern platform for communicating with LEA.
Digital Communities and Getting Behind Closed Doors
Figure 1.The State of Video Marketing
Source: Hayes, Adam
It is easy to see that society in the United States is revolving more around social media and people are spending more time in their digital communities. Pew Research shows that “a majority of Americans are now getting their news from social media” (Greenwood, Perrin, and Duggan par. 1) and that out of 67% of adults that use Facebook, 44% get news from the site (Gottfried and Shearer). With social interaction and news distribution changing, LEA needs innovative ways to reach their communities. In Faseeh and Khan’s article “Impact of Social Media Marketing on Brand Experience: A Study of Select Apparel Brands on Facebook”, they discuss the research and impact around SMM on commercial brands (p. 264). The results of this study show that content sharing and interaction have a “positive significant impact on sensory, affective, behavioural [sic] and intellectual experiences” when it comes to brand interaction (Faseeh and Khan). Commercial brands and marketing agencies have realized that if they want to attract more awareness to their products and engage the public, they need to apply social media marketing (SMM) tactics to promote their products. According to the article by Adams Hayes, “The State of Video Marketing in 2019,” the most successful of these tactics continues to be targeted short video content delivered to viewers on social media (see Figure 1). For example, a brand selling automotive tools can create a 30-second video featuring “how to” mechanic tips, then through Facebook’s marketing platform, the brand can deliver that video to social media users that have shown an interest in auto shop. This article by Hayes shows that brands are using SMM technology to generate leads to engage people in order to close sales. LEA needs to use this same SMM approach.
Programmatic Investigation’s Digital Canvass: A Case Study
Figure 2. Murder with impunity, San Bernardino, CA Homicides 2012 to 2017.
Source: Steven Rich, Mellnik, Kelly, and Lowery
By using SSM, LEA can craft crime alert messages via hyper-targeted delivery of video content to communities on a channel that tipsters are already on, such as Facebook or YouTube. For example, investigators can distribute a video to the public that is within a one-mile radius of a crime scene that either lives in the area or were recently visiting the area. These alerts can be received in the privacy of a living room or on a public bus, wherever tipsters are when they browse their social media. Plus, with “high expectations of social media as a way to improve the government-citizen relationship” (Edlins, Brainard), SSM marketing for solving violent crimes could prove to be a successful tool for LEA.
To have a better understanding of the efficacy of SMM marketing for LEA, I developed Programmatic Investigations and the Digital Canvass and teamed up with the San Bernardino Police Department’s (SBPD) Homicide Unit in Southern California for a case study (Hopkins). According to authors Rich, Mellnick, Kelly, and
Figure 3. Murder with Impunity, San Bernardino, CA Homicides 2012 to 2017. Source: Source: Rich, Steven; Mellnik, Kelly and Lowery
Lowery in their article, Murder with Impunity, “from 2012 to 2017, 38 percent of the 275 homicides in San Bernardino resulted in an arrest” (Figures 2 and 3). Through a coordinated effort with the department to help increase their solvability rate, we created three Digital Canvass case videos that included a crime scene walk-through with detectives, interviews with family members, and a call to action for members of the community to submit tips if they have information (Figure 4). Through the SBPD’s Facebook page and a Crime Alert Network Facebook page created for the case study (see table 1); these videos were delivered to areas of the community detectives felt would most likely generate a tip, including a one-mile radius around the crime scenes, in addition to other neighboring communities.
Digital Canvass Case Study with San Bernardino Police Department 2017, 2018
Programmatic Investigation Digital Canvass Videos
Case Study Results
Total Digital Canvass Videos
Organic Video Views
Comments & Reactions
Organic Facebook Engagement
Based on prior top organic video views of 4.5K compared to 21K for the most organic viewed Digital Canvass.
Out of the three digital canvassing case videos, investigators did receive a tip and according to Lt. Crocker of the Homicide Unit, “We received information on a homicide that advanced the investigation in a way that we likely would not have it were not for the video” (Hopkins 2018).While this study is not conclusive, it does suggest there are potential benefits to be gained through digital canvassing, including greater community engagement, increased closing rate of cases, cost savings in man-hours, and increased police saturation when combined with a physical canvass.
Arguments Against A Digital Canvass
Figure 4. Image of Digital Canvass video from San Bernardino Police Department’s Oriana Taylor Homicide Investigation,
Source: Hopkins, Christopher
Through my experience, LEA can be hesitant to accept outside involvement on investigations, understandable considering the gravitas of a homicide investigation and the responsibility agencies have to families and their communities. But media has always been an important ally for getting information to the public in an effort to generate case leads. We can see this frequently on the nightly broadcast news. However, as a study by the Pew Research Center shows, “A majority of Americans now say they get news via social media” (Greenwood, Sharon; Perrin and Duggan 2016). This would suggest new methods, such as a digital canvass, are needed for LEA to engage the public and call them to action.
LEA and Municipalities might think it is financially unfeasible to use these types of SSM tactics and that contracting digital agencies are outside of policing norms. Yet, Shapiro and Hassett point out in their study, “The Economic Benefits of Reducing Violent Crime,” homicides have a tremendous financial impact on communities and by reducing the homicide rate municipalities can give more to public safety, parks, and infrastructure, plus contribute to increased property values and taxes. Additionally, the Controller of Los Angeles County, Ron Galperin, has stated that there is a benefit in allowing police officers to do their “traditional” policing duties while departments and municipalities work with contractors to fulfill other digital needs such as website upkeep and social media engagement (p. 1, 3).
Finally, the public may have concerns about their protection of privacy with LEA using hyper-targeted demographic, psychographic, and geographic data to engage them on social media. But if using this technology and social media meta-data is good enough to sell a pair of shoes or a boat cruise, there should be little concern in using it to help keep our streets safe from dangerous predators.
Keeping our communities safe from the worst predators that walk the streets is one of the most valuable services LAE can provides their communities. With social media changing the way the public consumes information and a staggering rate of homicides going unsolved in many of our nations most populated cities, communities are facing a public safety concern that needs a modern solution in our ever-increasing digital world. To do this, local, state, and federal LEA need to develop new ways to engage the public to elicit tips that can lead to an arrest. By using innovative ways to apply readily available SMM techniques, working with creative digital marketing specialists, and applying standard commercial brand practices, law enforcement can reach a wider audience in their communities that can help solve crimes, while at the same time help build brand trust. Finally, reducing homicide rates can have a positive impact on communities, not only in regards for safety, but also by impacting municipal budgets and freeing up resources that can provide more public resources for communities.
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