Using the Internet as a juvenile violence prevention tool

Submitted by PoliceOne Staff

If the message that social media and the Internet are changing how law enforcement agencies approach crime hasn’t hit home for your department yet, it’s time to take note.

The Internet has become a ripe breeding ground for sexual predators, gang recruitment, cyber bullying, and child porn. The web hosts forums for terrorists to exchange information or for drug addicts to post the latest cocktail for meth. And eleven years after the Columbine school shooting incident, students are still posting messages of hate and violence on their MySpace pages or online chat rooms.

Constable Scott Mills, with Toronto Police Service and School Crime Stoppers, says that there is a major communication gap between modern youth and their adult mentors relating to technology.

“A problem still exists with police officers, probation officers, and youth workers not having the proper equipment to effectively use technology as a violence prevention tool,” Mills said. “In reality, all that is needed is a computer hooked up to the Internet.”

So if officers have all the equipment they need, what are some initial steps that they can do to reach out to juveniles and stop violent acts before they happen?

First, simply ask the juvenile in question for their e-mail address, their social networking site, or video sharing web site URL. Never ask for passwords, but instead strive to have a healthy two-way dialogue with the person about their Internet postings.

“Once disturbing material is found relating to suicide, drug usage/sale, gang activity, terrorism, bullying, school shooting plots and many other issues, then something can be done to engage the person in the counseling he or she needs that will prevent a violent act for occurring. You now will have online evidence to show to parents, school administrators and social service workers who will be able to help the youth with whatever problem they are having,” Mills explains.

When investigating a youth involved in a serious incident, it’s important to get all of the contact information from their e-mail accounts or chat buddy lists. Mills says that during one Toronto investigation, the e-mail addresses collected from student Hotmail accounts were used to send an invitation to view a YouTube video making a plea for tips in the disappearance of three missing teens.

The main mission of any officer engaging with the youth community is to break down walls between law enforcement and kids, to help teens who hate cops trust officers to keep them safe.

Mills suggests creating Facebook groups and YouTube pages that connect with the community in a real sense. For example, he uses the BMX bike trend and graffiti to interact with teens. Watching a YouTube video of a cop doing “legal graffiti” might help teens see officers in a new light and help them build relationships with the local law enforcement.

Officers should look to programs like Crime Stoppers as examples for how law enforcement, the media, and the community can interact to solve and prevent crime. The not-for-profit community-based program encourages the public to call with information concerning local crimes. Over the past few years Crime Stoppers has become an invaluable investigative tool to Ontario Police Services.

Check out the resources below for more information:

NoToGangs - 
Internet Violence Prevention -
Crime Stoppers International -
TipSoft SMS -

Special thanks to the Social Media in Law Enforcement conference and Constable Scott Mills for the information used in this tip.

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