Police Departments Newest Crime Fighter? Twitter.

April 10, 2014

The newest crime fighting tool for police departments may be Twitter, according to a professor at the University of Virginia, who has created computer software to read tweets to predict where and when crimes will occur.

Social media is already being used to investigate crimes across the country. In November of 2012 in Albemarle County, investigators turned to social media in the search for the man accused of attempting to abduct a child at Fashion Square Mall, releasing surveillance images of their suspect on Facebook and Twitter.

"By the end of that day someone had already identified the suspect involved," said Carter Johnson, the public information officer for Albemarle County police. "It's certainly a tool when we have those photographs and we need information from the public."

But instead of using social media to solve crimes, Matthew Gerber says police could use it to predict and eventually prevent crime. Gerber, an assistant professor with the Department of Systems and Information Engineering at the University of Virginia has created a computer algorithm to read about 800,000 tweets at a time.

"By describing their daily activities, it might give us some hints about what they do on a day-to-day basis and when they might come into contact with criminals and where," Gerber said of twitter users.

Gerber has the attention of law enforcement officials across the country. He has already been contacted by the New York Police Department for more information about his research and software. It's something Albemarle County Police say they are interested in learning more about.

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