The popularity of TV series like Sherlock, Elementary, and real life crime shows such as Forensic Files, Cold Case Files, has regenerated the public’s interest in helping law enforcement solve crimes in their area. While a few of these may be of the caliber of the “world’s most famous consulting detective,” others can prove to be a challenge to manage.
- Dissemination of approved information – how to share, what to share
- Researching archived information and knowing when to involve the public
- Connection to communities that include the family members of the missing unknown to other law enforcement agencies
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Tell us about the typical Sherlock that law enforcement agencies run into. How common is this person?
Todd Matthews: In the past, the cybersleuth was rejected initially because it was new. Cybersleuths weren’t commonly used in law enforcement because the Internet wasn’t part of the day-to-day case investigation. So as law enforcement began to use the internet more and more, they began to accept tips from cybersleuths, in general. As cybersleuthes became partnered with law enforcement agencies, they become “part of the team” so to speak, but in a limited way. Law enforcement keeps our distance because the cybersleuth is still a civilian, so they’re not part of “the behind the scenes case file report,” and they shouldn’t be. But if cybersleuth could point out valid leads, tips, and opportunities, that’s a good thing.
There’s always been the tipster, or the person trying to do the “citizen’s arrest.”
It’s always been there, it’s just that the internet has given people the opportunity to do this en masse.
JCH: So why do Sherlocks or cybersleuth get involved in solving crimes? How did they get started?
Todd: Cybersleuths usually get involved because something has happened in their community. They see an event in their community or even something that happens to their family and they want to take an active role in trying to resolve a situation or try to help. You know, it’s like “you report something if you see something.”
Sometimes the cybersleuth has too much curiosity – and that’s fine too. But sometimes, the cybersleuth doesn’t always have the right reasons or motivations. You do have to be careful – if it’s just a curiosity, or a hobby, or a past-time, it can get to the point where too many people are getting involved or it’s just not helpful.
JCH: Is this mostly a modern development or has there always been some level of civilian crime solving over the years?
Todd: There’s always been the tipster, or the person trying to do the “citizen’s arrest.” There were even a lot of comedies back in the 50s and 60s with people getting involved with law enforcement, going to the station, and reporting things. It’s always been there, it’s just that the internet has given people the opportunity to do this en masse.
You can have too much of a good thing and the “helpfulness” can get in the way. If you are a cybersleuth, you might need to evaluate and think about what you’re doing. This is not a game. I don’t want to discourage anybody from being a cybersleuth. But don’t overdo it. Sometimes things are happening behind the scenes that you don’t know about. You might think the police aren’t doing anything, when in fact, they are. Solving crimes isn’t like a soap opera that plays out before your very eyes. Sometimes things are kept quiet on purpose.
JCH: For some agencies, the idea of a “Sherlock Holmes” or other similar cybersleuths who just want to give law enforcement additional information might seem like a nuisance. How can these law enforcement agencies channel these civilians to make sure that it’s a help rather than a hindrance?
Todd: You’ve heard the word “crowdsourcing?” Crowdsourcing can work in crime, but it can be scary. Crowdsourcing can be a bit like a stampede – but sometimes with stampedes, someone gets trampled. Crowdsourcing crime tips or information can send people in a direction you’re not expecting, or you could have too many people doing too many things, or you can end up having a lot of people sending you the same tip.
But there are wonderful cybersleuths out there – people who have been doing this for years. They’ve done excellent work and they’ve stayed within the boundaries and not pushed it, they know the limitations, they know when helping and when they’re harming. They know where that line is.
JCH: So how would you advise a law enforcement agency to manage the tips coming in from helpful cybersleuth?
Todd: I would tell an agency if they are putting out a message, hoping to elicit the public to come forward with information, just make sure your message is very clear: what you’re asking for exactly? Don’t just open the gate for anything. You need to tailor it exactly what is it that you’re looking for.
If you need help, work with someone like me, who has asked the public for help, or your PIO. Remember to think through: “What are you trying to find out?”, “What do you already know?” But if you’re not experienced with dealing with this before you jump into it, be sure to think through things and talk to experts who have done this before… there might be a better way to get the job done a little more quickly.
JCH: What do you think are some of the biggest misunderstandings that law enforcement agencies might have regarding the use or involvement of civilians in crime solving?
Todd: I think sometimes there’s misunderstanding about how much information civilians have to certain data. We have a lot of situations where law enforcement agencies and the public have access to the same database now – but each has different amounts or types of access. Sometimes I hear law enforcement is looking at the system, and they see everything in full view and they ask “Does everybody see this?” No, and we show them, there are protected areas that nobody can see besides law enforcement.
Currently, we are working on NamUs 2.0 — that’s the upgraded version of NamUs. In the new version, we’ll be able to make it more clear to law enforcement that what you’re seeing is in a “protected view” versus what the public user can see.