future view

Citizens are increasingly important in police investigations

9 January 2019 • 5 min reading time

From WhatsApp community groups to Bellingcat. The police feel citizens can play an important part in their investigative work. TNO researcher Arnout de Vries advises the police in The Netherlands on matters relating to citizen participation. Because investigations by citizens involve some potentially thorny issues.

Citizens have always been important to police investigations. Traditionally, the police receive tips from people who have seen something suspicious. The efforts of citizens have been responsible for kick-starting many investigations. Over the past five to ten years, however, the nature of investigations by citizens has changed. “Internet and search engines such as Google enable citizens to find out much more by themselves than they could ever have done in the past,” says De Vries. “Furthermore, investigative tools that were previously only used by the police are now also available to private individuals. These tools range from infrared cameras to professional investigation software.”

People’s private detective work can produce amazing results. The best example of this is Bellingcat, a group of online investigators. Not only did they uncover all sorts of news about the attack on flight MH17, they also secured trace evidence on site. Their findings helped the authorities in The Netherlands to investigate the disaster and to determine who caused it.

More than extra eyes and ears

Investigations by citizens are not without risks. They can become a form of vigilante justice. For instance, cases where citizens tracked down and assaulted (alleged) paedophiles. And, where do we draw the line between what is allowed and what is not? Is it right for vigilante groups to use their own cars to force a suspect to stop? Also, what happens when citizens claim to know where a missing person is buried – as was recently the case with Willeke Dost, a girl who has been missing for decades – should the police immediately start excavating these sites?

Van Amerongen: “Thanks to new technological developments, citizens are more than just extra eyes and ears for the police. They also have brainpower and knowledge”

Director Investigations at the Dutch police, Wim van Amerongen is well aware of these risks, but his views about investigations by citizens remain very positive. “This trend is quite unstoppable”, he says. “So the best thing the police can do is to make more effective use of it, and try to keep it on track. Investigations by citizens are part and parcel of the ongoing ‘horizontalization’ of society. Citizens are now much more self-reliant than in the past”, says Van Amerongen. “This self-reliance, combined with new technological developments, makes citizens more than just extra eyes and ears for the police.”

New apps

Cases involving missing persons really spark public interest. In 2013, two boys, Ruben and Julian, went missing. It was the first case to involve a mass search via social media. While the police acknowledge the potential benefits of Twitter and Facebook in conducting searches, they are also aware that they need to support this type of investigation by citizens. This awareness led to the development of the app Sarea. This app can be used by anyone who wants to launch their own search for a missing person. The police use this app to share important details about the basic principles of searches, to advise people on how to define a search area, and to help coordinate all kinds of well-intentioned searches. With the use of GPS, a community coordinator can see the areas that Sarea users have already searched, and whether they found anything there. Search parties on the ground can chat with the coordinator and upload photos.

De Vries: “This also involves some ethical issues. For example, citizens involved in a search for a missing person may see some very unpleasant things”

“We have recently tested the app”, says Van Amerongen. “We learned a lot from those field trials. During a staged missing persons case, for example, we noticed that the searchers tended to pick up all kinds of evidence with their bare hands. They didn’t realize that, by doing so, they might be destroying valuable trace evidence.” De Vries adds: “This also involves some ethical issues. Citizens involved in a search for a missing person may see some very unpleasant things. In the worst possible case, that could be a corpse. The police have to prepare searchers for this.”

Sherlock Holmes

The Sherlock app, which the police are also developing together with TNO, is used in an even broader sense than the Sarea app. Citizens can use this app to open their own investigation file. If you have been burgled, then Sherlock will help you to record important information (traces of the break-in, potential scenario and motive). If you actually caught a glimpse of the perpetrator, you can use the app to create a facial composite yourself, or add any photographs that you might have taken. Finally, you can report this case file and share it with the police, to initiate a collaborative investigation process. As part of this process, the police always provide feedback on how their investigation is progressing.

De Vries: “Thanks to this app, any citizens who are engaged in their own investigations will have a better understanding of the modus operandus of the given crime”

De Vries notes: “Any citizens who are engaged in their own investigations will have a better understanding of the modus operandus in a given crime, thanks to this app. We think this will give people a better understanding of the police’s crime prevention tips, while at the same time boosting the impact of these tips in their community.” Right now, the Sherlock app is still at the prototype stage, so it is not actually in use. TNO hopes to further develop this innovative app with the police.

Scientist on the job

TNO researcher Arnout de Vries cooperates closely with the national police in his role as a ‘scientist on the job’ – a scientist who applies his knowledge to everyday security matters. De Vries specializes in cybercrime and online cocreation. In 2014, he co-authored a book with police investigator Frank Smilda, entitled Social Media: The New DNA. Its sub-title was: Do-It-Yourself Police. De Vries points out that, “The criminal investigation branch and the public prosecution service have now placed investigation by citizens on the national agenda. TNO is working with the police to develop a toolbox for citizens and professionals, but we are also exploring the legal and ethical implications. The aim is to embed the notion of investigation by citizens into the mindset of the police and the judiciary, and into their working practices.” According to De Vries, the current climate in the Netherlands favours such a development. “That’s because, relatively speaking, people in this country still place great trust in the government. If the public had no such trust, they would not be quite so willing to cooperate with the police.” 

Samenwerking Politie-TNO

Ongoing digitization, the increasing availability of information, and new forms of crime are constantly challenging the police to innovate. In an effort to respond to these changes, the police are cooperating with knowledge-intensive organizations that are well versed in these technological and social issues. TNO is one of the police’s main partners in this endeavour.

Want to know more? Contact us.

Would you like to know more?

Could your organization also benefit from citizen investigations? Then get in touch with Arnout de Vries of TNO.

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