For the past three years threats posted on social media channels have rapidly evolved and in recent months one of the main targets has been law enforcement personnel, which is alarming not only because those that risk their lives on a daily basis to protect us are being threatened, but also because local law enforcement agencies simply do not have the internal expertise and resources to effectively monitor social media for potential threats.
An article from Reuters, titled U.S. Police Struggle to Uncover Threats on Social Media, begins with: “U.S. law enforcement agencies are a long way from being able to effectively track threats of the kind a gunman posted on Instagram before his execution-style murder of two New York City policemen last weekend.”
Additionally, “Police need more data analytics and mining software to monitor social media sites such as Facebook (FB.O) and Twitter (TWTR.N), as well as trained personnel to make sense of what could be a deluge of data, say law enforcement officials and security experts.” And we couldn’t agree more.
Our company was profiled in this week’s edition of the Los Angeles Business Journal and while being interviewed two of the questions we were asked were: Looking at Ismaaiyl Brinsley’s story, where do you see the missed opportunities for surveillance by the NYPD? What could have been done to prevent the two officers from being killed?
Focusing on the Brinsley incident, where he made very obvious threats aimed at police in New York City before killing two officers in cold blood, and the fact that the threatening posts were live on Instagram for over an hour before being proactively reported to authorities, it becomes clear that improved monitoring efforts could have literally been the difference between life and death.
According to the timeline of events, Ismaaiyl Brinsley boarded a bus to New York City at 6:05 am after shooting his ex-girlfriend in Baltimore and arrived in Manhattan at 10:50 am. He then discarded the phone he was using to post threats on Instagram in Brooklyn at 12:07 pm and the threats he made weren’t reported until 1:30 pm. This means that between 12:07 pm (actually earlier) and 1:30 pm there were photos of a gun and bloodstained pants on Instagram, geotagged in Brooklyn, with the hashtags #shootthepolice and #coneyisland — and nobody picked them up.
Then, once police learned of the threats, they didn’t have enough time to respond. In fact, the Baltimore County Police Department sent the NYPD a wanted poster for Brinsley at 2:46 pm, only one-minute before the officers were killed at 2:47 pm.
The big question is: Could social media monitoring have actually prevented the two officers from being killed? If the threatening posts were identified an hour earlier or even 30-minutes earlier, would that additional time have allowed police officers with boots on the ground to be more prepared and vigilant? A majority of experts believe yes, and they see the power of social media monitoring to keep police officers safe. However, some are skeptical.
As quoted in the Los Angeles Business Journal article referenced above, “Parry Aftab, a lawyer specializing in Internet privacy who also sits on Facebook’s Safety Advisory board, said that’s a ridiculous claim.” She went on to add: “To say that all cops will be safer because of this kind of monitoring [social media threat monitoring] is ridiculous.”
But law enforcement personnel strongly disagree, especially after police departments throughout the country received numerous copycat threats immediately after the Brinsley incident, which forced them to expand their social media monitoring efforts, step up security and adjust protocols (i.e. officers traveling in pairs). And since the Brinsley incident occurred, over nine arrests have been made for threats aimed at the NYPD, according to CNN.
The notion that identifying threats against police in a more timely manner and giving law enforcement more time to respond will not improve the safety of officers is ridiculous in itself. The issue is not about creating technology to identify threats quicker, but instead having an appropriate budget and highly skilled analysts to carryout the mission.
The Reuters article touches on the roadblocks law enforcement agencies face, including budgetary concerns: “Analysts at the New York and Los Angeles police departments routinely crawl through social media to keep tabs on individuals on their radar, such as gang members, or to prepare for high-profile events. But in an era of shrinking or stagnant budgets, buying high-end software and hiring trained data analysts can be costly.” Additionally, “Many police departments utilize fairly rudimentary tools. The NYPD uses common search engines, experts say.”
Given the manner in which Brinsley publicized his actions and actually carried out his plan, law enforcement agencies are now taking social media threats far more seriously. “If you threaten to kill – or incite others to kill – police officers, you will get some very serious attention from this office, the FBI, and other appropriate authorities,” US Attorney John Walsh said in a statement.
“Those who threaten the lives of law enforcement officers through interstate communications will be fully investigated by the FBI and our partners,” added FBI Denver Special Agent in Charge Thomas Ravenelle. “The perceived anonymity of the Internet will not serve as a shield for espousing violence in violation of federal law.”
Looking at the facts, it’s quite clear that more effective monitoring efforts can greatly improve the safety of police officers, and as a country we can’t toss our hands in the air and give up. We can’t say monitoring social media for threats is impossible and turn the other way. And we can’t discount the importance of monitoring social media threats to gather actionable intelligence to thwart catastrophes as opposed to relying on intelligence gathering for reactive purposes after crimes have already been committed.
As Americans we pride ourselves in innovation ranging from the Wright Brothers who pioneered the first aircraft to people like Steve Wozniak who have forever changed our everyday lives to being the first country to put a man on the moon. When you take a step back and look at all of the amazing accomplishments humans have made over the years, why can’t we develop effective social media monitoring solutions to keep police safe? The answer: We can and we have.