Using social media to fight crime

Oct. 2, 2012
YouTube, other sites lend police departments a helping hand

The widespread adoption of YouTube has proven to be an invaluable vehicle for police departments, who are posting video surveillance footage on YouTube to gain traction in solving crimes.

The reason is in the YouTube user statistics themselves: More than 800 million unique users visit YouTube each month; more than three billion hours of video are viewed per month, with more than one trillion hours viewed in 2011; nearly 100 million people take social action after viewing a video every week.

There are nearly 40 police departments posting surveillance video on YouTube, including Kansas City, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, Houston, Tucson, Milwaukee, Portland, and Minneapolis.

The Milwaukee Police Department is a use-case for this growing law enforcement trend. The department has harnessed YouTube as an outreach tool since 2008; and since that time, the department has also become entrenched in the social media realm. Milwaukee’s Police Department has generated an impressive following on Facebook and Twitter, and sees these channels as a way to create an ongoing dialogue with the public.

"It’s been very positive," Anne Schwartz, director of communications at the Milwaukee Police Department, says of YouTube’s impact on her department. "Someone can watch a video on our website or on YouTube and read the entire description and pause it if they want to, and really take a good look at it. We’ve solved crimes that way. We’ve had people that see these videos, and then recognize the suspect in that video."

The Philadelphia Police Department created a YouTube channel in May 2008, a month after Milwaukee did. The department shares videos of unsolved crimes from each police division, ranging from burglaries and robberies to assaults and abductions, which, as a whole, have had more than 1.8 million views. "We’ve released just over 250 videos on YouTube and now have around 90 arrests," said PPD Social Media Community Manager Frank Domizio.  

To protect the privacy of anyone who divulges information on a crime, comments are disabled on every video posted by the two police departments. Users are provided with a phone number and email to contact the police divisions if they know something or recognize someone. To avoid legal troubles, the faces of bystanders are often blurred so that only the perpetrators can be identified. "Every face is blurred, except the people that we’re looking for," Domizio confirmed. "We make it our focus to ensure anonymity. We use a program called Camtasia to edit videos, which lets us blur faces or zoom in on suspects. Any innocent or non-involved person is blurred or edited out of the video."

All footage posted by police departments comes directly from business and public cameras. "The videos that we post all happen in the public -- either in a public place such as a street with outdoor cameras, or in a business where there is surveillance."

Security cameras with HD resolution noticeably enhance the quality and clarity of the video, making it easier for viewers to discern the scene’s details, including license plate numbers and faces. Day/night cameras that see in extremely low-lit or completely dark environments are beneficial in the evening when crimes generally occur. When businesses invest in these technologies, police will have access to video with greater evidentiary value.

In the end, police realize how crucial it is to make surveillance video available to as many people as possible.YouTube has enabled them to do just that. 

About the author: Ellen Arndt is communications manager for, an online retailer of video surveillance products.