Hot Internet Trend Catches Criminals, Too

Jan. 14, 2007 — -- YouTube is changing the face of the Internet, with everyone from proud parents to wannabe-celebrities uploading clips for the world to see.

Now, law enforcement is trying to capitalize on the Web site that can draw 35 million visitors a month.

Canadian police posted a nightclub surveillance video, hoping to generate leads in the murder of a 22-year-old concert-goer. Thirteen days and 17,000 hits later, a suspect turned himself in.

"When we normally forward a video to mainstream media, it'll be shown two, three, four times, and that'll be it," said Sgt. Jorge Lasso of the Hamilton Police Department. "The advantage of it on YouTube, of course, is not only that it costs nothing, but it remained on YouTube as long as we wanted it to."

Police in Franklin, Mass., captured a criminal paying with a fraudulent credit card at the Home Depot after the tape went up on the Web site.

Elsewhere in the state, University of Massachusetts officers used YouTube video of rioting on campus to build their case against those who started fires and threw rocks. Across the country, a California store owner posted a video of an attempted break-in. It led police to the suspect wanted for car theft and bank robbery.

Rod Wheeler, a former Washington, D.C. homicide detective, said law enforcement is trying to tune into youth culture by utilizing YouTube.

"Most of the crime that we tend to find ourselves investigating involves suspects between the ages of, as young as 17 years old and 28 years old. So you have to say to yourself, what are these individuals doing at 6 p.m.? They are not watching the six o'clock news. They are on the Internet nine times out of 10," Wheeler said.

'Video Doesn't Lie, but People Sometimes Do'

No longer solely reliant on sketches or wanted posters to find those breaking the law, investigators can simply upload whatever the camera's caught, and wait.

"The more people that see it, the more likely that somebody's going to recognize the people that you see, and give me a call," said patrolman Brian Johnson of the Franklin, Mass., police department.

YouTube lets local departments go global to track down the bad guys. But not everything about the site is so simple. Following up on the leads and making sure the pictures are from a legitimate source can be tricky.

"Video doesn't lie, but people sometimes do. And they can manipulate video, they can doctor it," said Susan Rosenbluth, a former federal prosecutor. "The police have to be very cautious about that."

But caution is likely to pay off in the courtroom.

"You love [that evidence] because it's a picture, and juries tend to believe what they see," Rosenbluth said.

While YouTube may not replace good old-fashioned police work, it serves as a reminder to officers that they need to be as Internet-savvy as the criminals themselves.

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