Why did West Chester U. police officers train on social media surveillance? (2023)

West Chester University’s small police force last October hosted a training on social media surveillance that showcased techniques like creating fake accounts with the potential to catfish students and others.

The course was offered by Street Cop Training, a controversial consulting group based in New Jersey. Street Cop Training was the subject of a lengthy investigation published in January by the business news website Insider, which identified the West Chester U. police department as one of several to have hosted the course.

University Police Chief Ray Stevenson confirmed to WHYY News and Billy Penn that the training did take place, and said it was organized by one of his deputies, University Police Lt. Laura McGill.

Called Social Media and Open Source Investigations, the training course teaches law enforcement officers how to mine social media for personal information, and create dummy accounts using fake names and AI-generated faces. (The creation of fake accounts can violate the terms of service of some platforms such as Facebook.) A flier for the course advertises that more than 2,000 officers nationwide have participated in it.

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About 20 to 25 individual officers paid $199 to take the WCU-hosted course, Stevenson said. He was unable to say how many of those officers were from his department.

He added that the state-owned university’s police force does not use those invasive practices.

“We do not make or use fake social media accounts for investigation purposes. If something like that were to occur, we will refer something like this to the county detectives,” Stevenson said.

(Video) Police arrest man accused of shooting woman in West Chester apartment

Experts across public and private policy fields note that proactive social media surveillance is a slippery slope — one that can easily lead to malpractice. A July 2020 Brookings Institution report on how to reform police monitoring of social media points to some horror stories: a New York teen who was sent to Rikers Island after a district attorney misread his Facebook connections; a Kansas teenager who was arrested on suspicion of incitement of rioting after a police officer misread his Snapchat story.

“[In] my experience, universities shouldn’t actively investigate using social media,” said Matthew Colpitts, the CEO of GoodIvy, a higher education safety and security consulting firm.

Colpitts acknowledged universities and their police departments do monitor student social media for a variety of reasons: honor code violations; potential bomb threats; or following up on evidence brought forth in active police investigations. However, Colpitts said, the surveilling entity generally discloses to the public how their private social media might be monitored.

The University of Rochester, for example, notes that “the university does not monitor internet or social media accounts for student content” but may investigate student social media if it is pertinent to an active allegation.

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The handbook for WCU, a public institution overseen by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, includes no mention of potential monitoring.

“It would be good practice to notify students that the university might be monitoring them, from a public perspective,” said Rob Kent, a higher education safety lawyer and former assistant general counsel at Michigan State University. “The institutions I’ve worked with have always been up front about that … But you have to remember that police officers are law enforcement, sworn and trained. So they’re going to be using investigation techniques that you may not know they are using.”

(Video) West Chester police search for man wanted for sex crimes

West Chester University has 26 sworn police officers, tasked with overseeing a four-block radius of the suburban campus in Chester County. Outside that radius, the rest of the university’s 400-plus acres are surrounded by and covered in part by police departments from West Chester Borough and West Goshen Township, as well as the Westtown-East Goshen Regional Police Department.

“What we like to do is post training and bring other outside departments in as well,” WCU Police Chief Stevenson explained, “because it increases the ability to meet people face to face and name a face with a name.”

Stevenson noted that feedback from his officers on the social media course was a mixed bag, adding that he thought it was still “worthwhile.”

“They thought the training was pretty good, but they didn’t think it was applicable to our situation and our staffing to do that,” Stevenson said. He maintained that his force would not employ methods taught in the course.

Stevenson categorized training of any kind as just another tool in the toolbox. The department in January hosted another Street Cop Training course, on “proactive” patrol tactics. The flier for that course describes it as including “constitutionally compliant techniques” that enable officers to “recognize crime before, during, and after it occurs.”

The last thing he wants his officers to do is “infringe upon the trust of the public,” Stevenson said.

“[O]ne thing we don’t want to do on law enforcement is mislead people, especially with the recent [George] Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Michael Brown. We want to be as transparent as possible,” Stevenson said. “The last thing I want the public to do is not trust us. We need our community to trust us in order to have a safer environment — a safer campus.”

Expert: ‘If I were a student … I would want to know more’

Beatrice Murray, a senior at West Chester University, struggled to find justification for why campus police would want to engage in proactive patrol or surveillance tactics.

(Video) Police officer injured in random attack in Westchester County

“[Among students], there is a huge question about what … they even do,” Murray told Billy Penn and WHYY News, noting that she typically only interacts with police when they check IDs at certain locations or bust parties. “They have less respect than the town police.”

Another WCU student, junior Mateo Rodriguez, said he was not surprised members of the university police department had explored such tactics.

“They are a force of anxiety,” Rodriguez said. He’s the secretary for a newly formed campus group called Students for Socialism and Liberation, whose leadership believes university police harass them and unnecessarily ask them to show ID.

“It’s on brand with the new form of society we’re in, with the digital age,” Rodriguez said, when told about the police social media training, “and honestly, [these tactics] would be scary, but I’m just so used to already being afraid of everything I do.”

Police department policies on social media use vary widely across the nation, according to a directory maintained by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

In this region, they’re not very robust. The Philadelphia Police Department’s policy specifies that social media can be used in “community outreach, prob­lem-solv­ing, invest­ig­a­tions, and crime preven­tion,” but it places no limitations on how police officers use social media in those scenarios. In nearby Lower Merion, the police department’s policy includes no guidance on how to utilize social media in police investigations.

But use of social media for various purposes by police in the United States is quite prevalent, according to Rachel Levinson-Waldman, the deputy director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center, where the bulk of her work focuses on the use of social media by government, law enforcement, and other sectors.

She cited a now-discontinued annual survey from the International Association of Chiefs of Police asking about the practice. Nearly two-thirds to 75% responded “yes” to using social media for some type of data collection purpose, according to Levinson-Waldman’s summary.

If she were a student, Levinson-Waldman said, she would have questions of any university police force looking to undergo the social media training.

“If I were a student on campus, and knew that the police force or the security force on campus have undergone this kind of training, I think I would want to know a lot more, right?” she said. “Even if there are representations of, ‘Well, we just went to this training, but we’re not using it.’ What was the decision-making behind doing it?”

(Video) West Chester Police Department LipSync

According to Stevenson, the campus police chief, West Chester University’s communications and marketing department will at times monitor social media and bring issues to law enforcement’s attention. Sometimes, he said, they bring up issues to the university’s detective; more often, matters are handled in conjunction with municipal police departments in the area.

“The best example that I could give you is when a student is in a crisis, like a mental crisis or a health crisis,” Stevenson explained. “That way we can reach out to the students, check on their well-being and, more importantly, offer them some support, and some counseling and put them in touch with information that they probably aren’t aware of.”

From Levinson-Waldman’s perspective, the courts are “evolving” on whether the practice violates Fourth Amendment privacy rights.

“It’s true that traditionally the courts have said, ‘Well, basically government agents can pretend to be somebody else, whether that’s in person or online, and … there aren’t like Fourth Amendment constitutional protections against that.’ That is starting to shift,” she said.

Kent, the higher education safety lawyer, said he hasn’t yet heard of a lawsuit in which a collegiate police force was held liable for unethical practices on social media, but he believes that engaging in such tactics could make legal liability particularly sticky.

Yes, the acting officer would be liable, said Kent, but if the officer was acting under the authority of the institution, so could the police department and the university.

That said, it’s still too early to tell if the law does not favor proactive social media policing, he noted.

“The courts have been a little more open with the ability for officers to do this kind of investigation. They look as if someone has created a fake account, and you accept a friend request [from them], they consented to the sharing of information [with them],” said Kent.

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FAQs

Why is social media important for police? ›

Broadly, law enforcement relies on social media as a tool for information sharing as well as for gathering information to assist in investigations. Social Media as a Communications Tool. Social media is one of many tools law enforcement can use to connect with the community.

Can social media help the police to find criminals? ›

Police have a legal right to use social media

Law enforcement officials use social media to locate criminals in the same manner and with the same permissions as the average user.

What is the role of the police and how is it viewed in our social life? ›

Police typically are responsible for maintaining public order and safety, enforcing the law, and preventing, detecting, and investigating criminal activities. These functions are known as policing. Police are often also entrusted with various licensing and regulatory activities.

What are 3 major problems that police officers face today? ›

In this article, we explore four current issues in law enforcement and the impact they're having on police departments across the country.
  • Police Recruitment and Retention. ...
  • Police Accountability. ...
  • Embracing Technological Advancements in Law Enforcement. ...
  • Data-Driven Crime Prevention.
14 Feb 2022

How the police and media work together and why? ›

Police departments should expect to interact with the media. The push should be towards relaying information to the media that is accurate and timely. This would prevent the need for media to obtain information from sources that may be anti-police. The media needs to trust that agencies will remain accessible.

How does social media play an important role in police operations and law enforcement? ›

Many police departments across the United States use social media sites as an economical and effective way to inform the community about current events. Often, law enforcement agencies issue warnings and share real-time information that protects the public in emergencies such as weather events.

How do police look at social media? ›

Yes and they do. Police regularly search social media for evidence of crimes, to see who you associate with, to see if they can get you to admit to crimes. CNN reports that 4 out of 5 police have used social media during an investigation. That number is probably higher than anyone wants to admit.

What do police background investigators look for in social media? ›

A social media background check is similar to other types of background checks, like criminal checks. It looks at a person's past behavior since a person's past can be indicative of a person's future behavior.

Can police see your social media if its private? ›

They can create fake accounts to view comments and photos on a private account's timeline: even accounts that are shielded from prying eyes through their privacy settings are generally vulnerable, though a warrant subpoena or court order may be necessary for the police to access them.

What is the Three role of police in social life? ›

Modern-day police organizations, as they're known today, have four social responsibilities. Police officers are responsible for enforcing laws, preventing crime, responding to emergencies, and providing support services.

What are the 3 responsibilities of the police? ›

It states among others that: “It shall be the duties of the Police Service to prevent and detect crime, to apprehend offenders and to maintain public order and safety of persons and properties”.

What are the most important duties and responsibilities of the police? ›

Laws should state that the primary duties of police are to protect victims and potential victims and promote offender accountability by consistently enforcing laws and procedures so that all “honour” crimes and killings are investigated and addressed by the criminal justice system.

What is the most common form of police corruption? ›

The most common type of police corruption is the acceptance of bribes from those who deal in the vices of gambling, prostitution, illegal drinking, and the illegal use of drugs.

What is the most challenging part as a police officer? ›

Relaying News of a Death

Many say that delivering the news of a death is the worst part of their career because the message causes people pain. Cops faced with this duty often don't know how people will react to the news and find it difficult coping with the range of different reactions that can occur.

What do police officers suffer from? ›

Police officers report higher rates of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Why social media is good for fighting crime? ›

Via Facebook and Twitter, police and the public can communicate in real time about incidents and events. This has proven invaluable not only during times of crisis, but also on a day-to-day basis and at the local level. Social media has also become an important tool in police investigations.

What effect does the media have on policing? ›

There is evidence that supports media's false reporting increases individual's negative attitudes as well as actions toward law enforcement across America. Police officers are among those being falsely targeted, attacked, and killed by individuals as well as groups acting out based on media reports.

How does the media influence public opinion on police? ›

information, the average person's knowledge and understanding about any given investigation is often limited. This results in the public's reliance on mass media sources to develop their often biased opinions. This creates a number of issues for the police, the criminal justice system, and for society in general.

How effective is social media in policing? ›

Social media therefore provides the police with a new way to connect with the public. In a consent-based policing system engagement is crucial in building public trust and confidence; social media enables the police to engage better and to build relationships, as well as to gather information and intelligence.

How social media is changing policing? ›

Community policing today has also expanded through social networking to locate missing children, alert neighbors of suspicious activity and even inform the public about crimes committed in their neighborhoods.

How social media impacted police/community relations? ›

At times, it seems the media attack officers and agencies for mistakes, especially when the agency attempts to keep them quiet. With social media, an agency can get in front of the issues and set the tone of the narrative of the incident before others can be negative and accusatory.

Can police track your Internet activity? ›

Do the police monitor Google searches? While police do not actively monitor Google searches, they are able to obtain a warrant for your search history if they have probable cause to do so.

How do you know if police are watching you? ›

5 Signs an Undercover Cop is Watching You
  1. Strange Phone Interference. Wiretaps are commonly used as a means of listening in on a target's phone conversations. ...
  2. Subtle Changes Around Your Home. ...
  3. Unexplained Service Workers Near Your Home. ...
  4. Receiving Strange Gifts. ...
  5. You Feel Like You're Being Followed. ...
  6. What Should You Do Next?

Can cops search your Facebook? ›

Even if Facebook declines law enforcement's request for information, police can still access online data through other means. For example, every time someone posts information publicly, either on their personal page or in public groups, that information can legally be used in criminal investigations.

What do social media background checks look at? ›

Employers use social media background checks to learn about candidates as a person, including how they conduct themselves in public and any comments they have made about their professional history.

How do you know if you passed a background investigation? ›

How do you know if you passed a background check? The employer will contact you to let you know that your background check is clear. Alternatively, if you are hired you'll know that there were no issues.

What does a social media check involve? ›

What is a social media check? A professional social media check reduces risks to brand, reputation, confidentiality breach and data security. The check identifies a candidate's online presence to look for negative behaviours such as bullying, racism, nudity and excessive bad language.

Can police see your deleted search history? ›

Can police recover deleted internet history? Yes, simply by contacting your internet service provider. They are obligated by law to store records of your online activity. The only exception is that your provider could have already deleted the data if the history is older than the data retention period.

Can police track social media messages? ›

Police will need a warrant if they want to obtain authenticated copies of the suspect's social media information. This warrant must be presented by police to the social media company responsible for the account in question.

Can the police see things you've deleted? ›

The answer is yes—by using special tools, they can find data that hasn't been overwritten yet. However, by using encryption methods, you can ensure your data is kept private, even after deletion.

What are the 4 responsibilities of police? ›

Police Officer Responsibilities:

Enforcing local, state, and federal laws. Patrolling assigned geographic zones and responding to calls. Apprehending and transporting suspects. Interviewing victims, witnesses, and suspects.

What social factors affect police? ›

In addition to character, personality and ethnicity, police officers' gender, level of education and experience can influence their decisions to use legitimate violence.

What are the four basic responsibilities of the police? ›

Duties of a Police Officer
  • Protects life and property through the enforcement of laws & regulations; Proactively patrols assigned areas.
  • Responds to calls for police service.
  • Conducts preliminary & follow-up criminal and traffic investigations.
  • Conducts interviews.

How many hours do police officers work a day? ›

Although on paper he was required only to work 12 hours a day, a station house officer said, he works 14 hours to 15 hours each day.

Which country has the largest police force in the world? ›

Biggest police forces around the world (2013)
#CountryPolice force
1India1 731 537
China1 500 000 (est)
2Russia745 607
3USA626 942
12 more rows
13 Aug 2015

What is the most important skill set of a police officer? ›

Communication is an essential part of a police officer's job as it involves interrogating suspects, talking to victims, lodging complaints, executing search missions, and also reporting to the seniors. Police officers must have excellent written and verbal communication skills to execute all these functions.

What's the full meaning of police? ›

/pəˈlis/ an official force whose job is to maintain public order, deal with crime, and make people obey the law, or the members of this force: I think you should call the police. Police arrested two people in connection with the robbery. police.

What are the three 3 police methods of investigation and control? ›

The main measures traditionally employed by law enforcement agencies in relation to the investigation of offences include search and seizure of property, arrest and questioning, and covert operations (such as surveillance, controlled delivery, and undercover activities).

What are grass eaters in police? ›

As defined by the Knapp Report, those police officers who "aggressively misuse their police powers for personal gain" are meat-eaters, while "grass-eaters simply accept the payoffs that the happenstances of police work throw their way" (p. 4).

What are the two types of police misconduct? ›

Types of police misconduct

Selective enforcement ("throwing the book at" people who one dislikes; this is often related to racial discrimination) Sexual misconduct.

What are the 3 types of corruption? ›

Corruption can be defined and categorized in different ways. The most common types or categories of corruption are supply versus demand corruption, grand versus petty corruption, conventional versus unconventional corruption and public versus private corruption.

Is it hard being a cop? ›

Police work is rife with circumstantial stressors. Our fuses and energy become short with sleep deprivation, long shift hours, societal isolation, and continued exposure to negative human elements. Because police officers are in constant danger, we are also overly suspicious of everything and everyone.

Why is being a police officer so stressful? ›

Police work is highly stressful, since it is one of the few occupations where employees are asked continually to face physical dangers and to put their lives on the line at any time.

Can you be a cop with PTSD? ›

Becoming a Cop

Even medical records showing PTSD don't automatically disqualify someone from the job candidate pool. If the PTSD is so severe that it would interfere with a candidate's ability to successfully complete daily job requirements, however, employers wouldn't offer that candidate a job.

Can you be a cop with anxiety? ›

Living with depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder can be difficult, but many people prove capable of managing and functioning normally. If you're fortunate enough to live in a state that fosters this mindset, you should be able to be considered as a candidate just like anyone else.

Do cops suffer from PTSD? ›

The potential long-term effects of PTSD in police officers may additionally lead to behavioral dysfunction such as substance abuse, aggression, and suicide. It is estimated that, on average, approximately 15 percent of officers in the U.S. experience PTSD symptoms.

How does social media help to prevent crime? ›

Social media provide law enforcement agencies with access to community residents who have concerns and questions about how they and their family members can reduce the risk for various types of criminal victimization.

How does social media help with crime? ›

There is no doubt social media has been beneficial for some criminal justice institutions. For the police, social media has given them unprecedented access to the public, and vice versa. Via Facebook and Twitter, police and the public can communicate in real time about incidents and events.

How technology is useful for police? ›

Technology also creates an interface between the public and the police. It helps the police to protect the life and property of the public. The public can easily and effectively communicate their complaints to the police. However, technology has also been highly misused and has negatively affected a case.

What crimes are committed using social media? ›

In addition to identity theft, cyberstalking has also been estimated to be a prevalent offense on social media. Examples and case studies of the criminal use of social media are included, along with prevention tips.

What crimes can be committed on social media? ›

5 Common Types of Social Media Crime
  • Online Threats, Stalking, Cyberbullying. The most commonly reported and seen crimes that occur on social media involve people making threats, bullying, harassing, and stalking others online. ...
  • Hacking and Fraud. ...
  • Buying Illegal Things. ...
  • Posting Videos of Criminal Activity. ...
  • Vacation Robberies.
22 Feb 2017

How does the media play a role in crime and criminals? ›

Public knowledge of crime and justice is derived largely from the media. Research has examined the impact of media consumption on fear of crime, punitive attitudes, and perceived police effectiveness. Studies have found that the more crime-related media an individual consumes, the more fearful of crime they are.

What type of communication does police use? ›

Two-way radios

In the field and on duty, two-radio radios keep officers communicating in the most challenging environments.

What kinds of technology do police use to solve or prevent crimes? ›

  • Kustom Speed Enforcement Hub.
  • Handheld RADAR. Handheld RADAR. Falcon HR. ...
  • Hand-Held LIDAR. Hand-Held LIDAR. ProLaser 4. ...
  • In-Car RADAR. In-Car RADAR. Eagle 3. ...
  • RADAR Speed Displays. RADAR Speed Displays. PMD 10 & 12. ...
  • RADAR Speed Trailers. RADAR Speed Trailers. ...
  • Messaging Trailers. Messaging Trailers. ...
  • Traffic Data Collection. StealthStat II.

What strategies do police use? ›

Policing strategies include hot spots, broken windows, stop question and frisk (SQF), and procedural justice. The broken window policy assumes that reducing low-level neighborhood crime and disorder can prevent a series of serious crimes.

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