Police Turn to YouTube to Catch Suspects

The Associated Press
Sunday, March 4, 2007; 2:02 PM

-- Patrolman Brian Johnson of the Franklin, Mass., Police Department studied a surveillance video showing two men using allegedly stolen credit cards at a Home Depot.

But when Johnson didn't recognize either man, he decided to involve people _ a lot of them _ to help crack the case. He posted a clip from a security camera on YouTube.com, Google Inc.'s video-sharing Web site, then e-mailed the clip's link to about 300 people and organizations saying the department was looking for the men.

"You don't have to be a technology wizard to figure out how to watch a video on YouTube," Johnson said of the decision to post on the site that hosts millions of amateur and commercial videos.

A handful of police departments have utilized YouTube as a law enforcement tool, putting up video of suspects and eliciting help from the Internet-using public in identifying them. Experts say the idea has promise, but it's too soon to tell whether it will have staying power amid constantly evolving technologies and the difficulty of making a video stand out among millions. Some also see a risk of fruitless tips, misidentifications or privacy problems.

In Johnson's case, the suspects were ultimately arrested. Though the video generated publicity and thousands of viewings online, Johnson is quick to credit the success to old-fashioned police work rather than the Web site.

"You've got to ask yourself, 'What's the penetration? How many people are going to watch it? What would make people watch it?" said Eugene O'Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

Perhaps the most-publicized example was in Hamilton, Ontario, in Canada, where police in December posted a 72-second surveillance video on YouTube in hopes of locating a suspect in a fatal stabbing outside a hip-hop concert. Detective Sgt. Jorge Lasso said the video ultimately received more than 35,000 "hits," and police had enough information within two weeks for an arrest.

Lasso said it's hard to know exactly what role YouTube played since the clip generated so much media attention. While other departments that posted on YouTube simply relied on a press release to let the public know, Lasso went straight to the population that mattered and announced the clip on Web sites frequented by hip-hop fans.

"We hoped there would be enough buzz created that people on their own would go to YouTube," Lasso said.

While the key witness in the case told police he hadn't even seen the YouTube video, Lasso is skeptical of that claim.

"There's no way that I'm going to be convinced that a 20-something didn't view that YouTube posting," he said.

Police in Aventura, Fla., working on an open homicide case from 2001 posted video from a supermarket security camera showing the victim chatting with a younger man considered a person of interest in the case. Sgt. Michael Bentolila narrates the video, pointing out a tattoo or birthmark on the man's arm and telling viewers to note how the man walks.

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