Law-enforcement agencies are mining social media to more effectively protect assets, corroborate evidence and conduct investigations, but experts in the field urge officers to use caution and self-discipline when navigating this hereto little-explored terrain.

“The technology advancements have been tremendous, and they have brought tremendous capabilities to law enforcement over the last several years,” David Carabin, director of the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, said during a session at the recent International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Law Enforcement Information Management (LEIM) conference in Atlanta.

Social media certainly has proven to be one of those new opportunities. According to a survey IACP conducted last fall, about 80% of the 500 law-enforcement agencies that participated said that social media had helped solve crimes in their jurisdiction.

But missteps now will lead to stiffer regulations in the future that would limit an officer’s ability to use social media as a tool, according to Carabin and another speaker, Ron Brooks, a retired captain with the San Mateo County, Calif., Sheriff’s Office and a principal with Brooks Bawden.

“The technology is moving at this very rapid pace, and because we can do something with that technology, we have to ask ourselves: ‘Should we? Should we just do it, or should we start thinking perhaps more of policy before we start taking any actions?’” Carabin said.

If social media is not used responsibly now in the early stages, law enforcement will “get regulated right out of this business,” Brooks said.

This happened with asset-forfeiture laws, Brooks noted. As another example, Caridan cited GPS tracking devices on vehicles. In both cases, public backlash led to a loss of ability to use those tools effectively, they said.

“We can’t let that happen here,” Brooks said. “It’s really important that we regulate ourselves.”

Having a departmental policy—and following it—is an essential part of that self-regulation, Brooks said. When public-interest groups and defense attorneys critically examine the methods used in an investigation, a department will need to be able to defend the decisions made over the course of an investigation.