What experts say about Facebook Live's emerging role in policing and criminology

Criminals broadcasting their illegal activity online may be seeking notoriety.

ByABC News
May 24, 2017, 4:00 AM

— -- When Facebook introduced the ability to post live videos to the public in 2016, the feature brought billions of people on the far-reaching ends of the earth closer together.

With the new technology –- and the newfound tendency of users to document their every move online –- comes an emerging role of live broadcast in criminology and policing.

As more and more users become familiar with the function, a sub-trend of people posting questionable, concerning or illegal material online has emerged as well.

While other platforms such as Instagram and Periscope feature live videos, the most prominent form of live broadcast on social media is on Facebook, which clocked in nearly 2 billion users worldwide as of this past March.

Why criminals may broadcast their illegal activity live online

In January, four people in Chicago were arrested for allegedly torturing an 18-year-old man, described by police as having “mental health challenges.” The alleged torture was broadcast online as the captors yelled racial slurs.

In March, also in Chicago, a 15-year-old girl was apparently gang-raped on Facebook Live by five or six men or boys, The Associated Press reported.

But what would possess people committing crimes to broadcast their illegal activity live to the world? Isn’t that a sure-fire way to get caught?

Criminals who post live footage of their crimes to Facebook may be looking to attract attention from its billions of users, simply for their “15 minutes if fame,” said ABC News consultant Ray Kelly, a former commissioner of the New York City Police Department. But their reasons aren’t much different from criminals of the past, Kelly said.

“Many criminals, in my experience – they crave notoriety,” Kelly said. “Facebook gives them potentially, perhaps hundreds of millions of viewers.”

Thomas Holt, a professor at Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice, said that in other cases, "it's not so much the individual actor trying to be brazen" about their crimes but rather that he or she is not thinking "strategically about what they post and where."

Examples of this could include someone who is arrested for violating parole after taking pictures with firearms or with people who are known felons, Holt said.

Although Holt says there isn't sufficient data available yet on the use of Facebook Live and behavioral patterns, he believes that "certainly" low self control and low impulse control are contributing factors for someone to "do everything on social media," including committing a crime.

Kelly said he doesn’t find it “that unusual” to see people sharing live posts of their crimes.

“We’ve seen people do these things in the past,” Kelly said.

The difference, he said, is the exposure in the past wasn’t as “tremendous” as what Facebook can offer today.

Age could also be a contributing factor as to why people who broadcast their crimes online.

For young people posting crimes live to Facebook, it could be lack of maturity that cause them to "Go live," said former FBI agent and ABC News contributor Steve Gomez. They post their antics "thinking it's funny but not recognizing the results of their actions," Gomez said.

For adults broadcasting their actions live, such as Christine Chubbuck, the television news reporter who killed herself on-air in 1974 in Sarasota, Florida, and Bryce Williams, a former reporter in Virginia who murdered his former colleagues Alison Parker and Adam Ward while they were in the middle of a live shot in 2015, the person may not have a suitable coping mechanism for their mental anguish, Gomez said.

How Facebook Live could help policing

On May 2, police in Macon, Georgia helped save a teen who broadcast her suicide attempt on Facebook Live.

The Bibb County Sheriff’s Office told ABC News that it got a call from someone who saw the video and gave police the girl’s name. When police got to her address, the girl was unresponsive but still had a pulse, police said. She was revived at a local hospital, and was doing well as soon as two days later, her grandmother told deputies.

Kelly said it makes sense that a suicidal person would want to broadcast the attempt to take his or her own life.

“Suicide is mostly done with the notion [that] somebody is going to see what you made them do,” Kelly said.

When concerning behavior, such as a suicide attempt, is posted to Facebook Live, it gives first responders the potential to expedite aid to the victim if a witness calls 911, Kelly said.

Law enforcement is "focused on prevention," Gomez said, and tries its best to "prevent people from committing violent acts."

How Facebook Live can shed light on police misconduct

When a mother in Fort Worth, Texas was arrested after calling 911 to complain after a neighbor allegedly choked her son, one of her daughters broadcast the controversial scene on Facebook Live. The officer was disciplined with a 10-day unpaid suspension and was not allowed to return to his original patrol assignment in the neighborhood. He also was required to undergo retraining and is appealing the disciplinary action taken against him.

As more and more incidents of police misconduct are captured on camera, Facebook Live has the ability to further bring potential change to policing, Kelly said.

The "advent of cell phone cameras" was a "game changer as far as police interaction with citizens," as well as police departments that equip officers with body cameras, Kelly said.

"I think video cameras in general has changed the way policing is done," Kelly said. "...I think there will be a lot more beneficial actions on the part of the police being captured on live cameras."

Holt cited the "dated example of the beating of Rodney King by police officers of the Los Angeles Police Department in March 1991. Riots broke out in Los Angeles after the footage was broadcast on the news, sparking a nationwide debate on police brutality.

Facebook Live footage can be a "useful tool," Holt said. In some cases, witness footage directly contradicts what is portrayed in police body cam footage, he said.

"Given how many [police-involved] shootings there have been of civilians, if you have a body cam that shows one thing and three Facebook Live videos that show something completely different...the evidence could be much more compelling," Holt said.

The biggest challenge to using Facebook Live videos in cases of police misconduct is whether a prosecutor will accept it as admissible evidence, Holt said.

When it comes to convicting suspects, using Facebook Live as evidence could be a "slam dunk," Kelly said.

"All the prosecutor has to do is show [the video], and it is very very strong evidence," Kelly said.

But when it comes to convicting police officers, Facebook Live footage may not be viable if it does not capture the entire situation, including what led up to the incident, Gomez said.

"Without the full scope of what happened, the evidence could be prejudicial to one side or the other," Gomez said. "At the end of the day, what we're talking about is truth and justice, and to get to the truth, you need the full scope of what occurred.,"

Gomez cautioned the public not to use Facebook Live footage as the "magic bullet to back up any assertions they have involving law enforcement."

When combined with body cam footage, Facebook Live can "absolutely" be used as admissible evidence in convicting a police officer, Gomez said, especially since the video was likely unaltered when it was posted.

"I think the most important aspect of the Facebook [Live] video is that there is somebody that can testify that they are the one who activated the video," Gomez said. "There was no attempt to alter the video, and the chain of evidence is secure."

Why witnesses may be compelled to post rather than step in and help

A private citizen -- or even an off-duty police officer -- witnessing a violent act, potential crime or police misconduct has only mere moments to decide what to do next. Gomez said.

"The first thing you want to do is be a good witness," Gomez said. "Observe. Listen. And in the case nowadays, if you can pull out your phone safely and activate it, go ahead and do it. That way you can capture as much as possible."

According to Holt, someone may think it's important for other people to see what they are themselves witnessing, and choosing Facebook Live as the medium potentially shows the perceived urgency of the incident.

"On one hand, you hope people would intervene on another person's behalf in the event that they're being abused or beaten...even to call 911," he said. "Realistically, that doesn't happen."

Holt added, "It may be that some people interpret something posted on social media as a way of potentially helping another person."

People may also simply be looking to go viral or get clicks and likes, especially younger generations, such as children ages 10 to 15, who "live their lives online," Holt said.

Kelly speculates that it is the "human condition these days" for people to automatically pull a phone out and start recording.

"People are so locked into their phones, and reaction maybe 30 years ago might have been different," Kelly said. "...Everyone who has a phone capability to record. That's sort of their first reaction."

Gomez recommends that Facebook users who witness a crime online should immediately contact 911, or if the crime is over state or international lines, call the FBI.

How Facebook is responding to crimes being broadcast live

Gomez said the "main issue" is monitoring the videos that stream through Facebook Live.

Earlier this month, Facebook announced its plans to add 3,000 more people to review videos and other posts after it was criticized for not responding quickly enough to murders broadcast on the platform. The new hires will be in addition to the 4,500 other people Facebook already has monitoring criminal and other questionable material.

Gomez commended Facebook for taking the "proactive step" in adding the "large" workforce to monitor Facebook Live videos.

Policing live steams is especially difficult for Facebook, since what will happen next isn't guaranteed. Facebook could take the monitoring a step further by developing some form of artificial intelligence that monitors the content and triggers a red flag," Gomez said.

"That's where we want Facebook and other software companies to go," he added.

If a user violates Facebook's community standards while using Live, it attempts to interrupt the streams as quickly as possible when they are reported, a spokesperson for Facebook told ABC News. Facebook also monitors Live broadcasts that reach a certain level of popularity to ensure that they meet community standards, the spokesperson said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Related Topics