Cheyenne Rose Antoine of Saskatoon, Canada made headlines in January 2018 for her selfie. But this was no ordinary photo: It was key murder evidence.
Antoine’s friend, Brittney Gargol, 18, had been found dead on the side of the road in March 2015 with a belt near her body. Saskatoon Police honed in on a pre-party selfie Antoine posted on Facebook earlier that night of the two. They thought the belt Antoine was wearing looked similar to the one found at the crime scene and suspected it was the murder weapon; their theory later proved to be correct. Antoine pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was convicted. She received seven years in prison.
Antoine’s conviction sparked a larger conversation about the role of social media in crime-solving and evidence-gathering. Kevin Urbanczyk, chief of operations at the Michigan City Police Department in Michigan City, Indiana, tells A&E Real Crime that social media is lending a voice to crime victims and their families.
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“In the event a victim and-or their family desires for multiple people to hear what happened to them, or seeks help from the public, social media reaches a broader amount of people faster,” he says.
In fact, that’s what happened in Urbanczyk’s city, when the recent arrest of a teenage girl’s murderer was catalyzed in part by a series of Facebook Live videos.
Seventeen-year-old NeKeisha Hodges-Hawkins was murdered on July 24, 2011, randomly shot in the back of the head while leaving a birthday party in Krueger Memorial Park in Michigan City. But it was a series of Facebook Live videos created by her father Kalvon Hawkins, in 2016 and 2017, that ultimately led to the arrest and conviction of her murderer, Charles Gerron.
One 20-minute Facebook Live in particular, streamed by Hawkins after what he felt was a fruitless meeting with police, went viral, possibly sparking further investigation into the case. Hawkins had said he showed police comments from Facebook that indicated someone might know something about the murder, but cops said they weren’t able to do anything.
A little more than a month after the video was posted, Gerron was arrested.
The video captured the public’s hearts and stirred their emotions, says Urbanczyk: “Kalvon Hawkins’ emotional plea for help really resounded throughout the community and beyond.” Mr. Hawkins’ “unwillingness to settle,” he says, made a huge difference in the outcome of the case.
Like victims and their families, law-enforcement agencies are also increasingly turning to social media as a means of both solving crimes and connecting with the public. After 39 years in law enforcement, Florida’s Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey has garnered strong opinions about—and strong public reactions for—his unique use of social media to apprehend alleged perpetrators.
Since taking office in 2013, his department’s Facebook page has amassed more than 100,000 followers. Ivey’s “Wheel of Fugitive” broadcast on Facebook and YouTube, in which he asks the public for tips to locate individuals with current warrants (and yes, he spins a wheel with their mug shots), has led to a number of arrests over the past half-decade. Ivey says his team’s social-media output reaches between 300,000 and 700,000 people weekly—far more than they could hope to reach with more conventional methods.
“When I became Sheriff in 2013, one of my goals was to get vital crime information to the public before they became a victim, and not after,” says Ivey. “We found out very quickly that the overwhelming majority of people were using social media to interact.”
So his department did too, following the public’s lead to disseminate information effectively and rapidly. He adds that humor was a crucial element, engaging the public with a lighthearted approach where appropriate.
According to Ivey, his commitment to social-media outreach, though controversial at times, has more than paid off. The success rates in delivering and obtaining information this way, he says, are unprecedented. With the “Wheel of Fugitive” program, Ivey estimates, as much as 88 percent of perpetrators turn themselves in or are found using citizen tips.
Ivey recalls one incident that he felt demonstrated the true power of Facebook in time-saving detective work. After a local restaurant’s countertop charity bank was robbed, he asked his team to put a video still online. Within five to 10 minutes, via private message, he was informed of the perpetrator’s identity, as well as that of the perp’s pastor, who helped to locate the thief within the hour.
The viral nature of social media, however, can sometimes hinder or stall investigations, says Darrell Watkins, chief of police at the Gosnell Police Department in Arkansas. His small team of cops was recently overwhelmed by calls from across the world when a graphic viral photo led to the arrests of two alleged child-abuse perpetrators.
The photos, apparently disturbing enough that law-enforcement officers asked they not be widely distributed, led to public outrage and the arrest of Anthony Mosley and his girlfriend, Sarah Keeling, the mother of the allegedly abused 2 and 3-year-old children pictured. Mosley has since been charged with first-degree domestic-violence battery, while Keeling is charged with permitting the abuse of a minor.
Watkins says social-media backlash can sometimes overburden police departments. In this case, he says people from as far away as California and Australia were calling his station, with some making threats toward the alleged perpetrators.
Watkins says they have to protect everyone—including the “bad guys”—when they find people taking on a mob mentality and are out for vigilante justice. And this just hampers their investigation. “We can’t focus on the crime when we have to deal instead with media fallout or protecting the person we want to arrest,” says Watkins.
In this case, the department also asked for the photos in question to be removed so as to protect the privacy of the minors involved.
Watkins believes that heightened emotions related to violent crime, along with the rapid-fire pace of social-media networking, can contribute to unproductive responses during ongoing investigations.
He implores the public to use caution when discussing alleged crimes online: “Stop and take a few minutes to think about what your emotions and your threats could possibly mean in terms of jeopardizing a case,” says Watkins.
Detectives are sometimes also challenged by the sheer amount of information they receive about a case on social media.
That massive influx of social-media information has fundamentally changed the landscape of detective work, says Jason McNew, a former White House Communications Agency employee and founder and CEO of cybersecurity firm Stronghold Cyber Security.
Some of the confusion about how to use social media effectively in detective work, he adds, is due to as-yet not-quite-developed science.
“I think it’s kind of similar to battlefield management in that there’s so much data that’s coming forth, that boiling it down into actionable intelligence is a really difficult task.” The science behind classifying and parsing data from social media “hasn’t matured yet,” he says.
But while technology has “enormous potential for abuse,” McNew is confident that the science of data analysis will catch up to make for highly effective crime-solving tactics.
“It’s an incredible task that will only get better as time goes on,” says McNew.