If Inspector Gordon had access to Facebook in Gotham City, he might have put Batman out of a job.

All over the country, police departments are employing social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to solve crimes. They’re using them like a “bat-signal”, to project to the masses crimes that they need help solving and suspects that need hunting down. It is a new and futuristic tool for law enforcement – one that has a lot of potential for catching criminals.

But how effective is it? How often does it actually lead to a crime solved? And how often is the information provided by social media legit?

Sara Spaulding, the public information officer for the Wheat Ridge Police Department, says it’s very effective. According to her, social media has become an almost essential resource for police in her area to accept tips, broadcast crimes and track down evil-doers. She says it has helped with everything from locating assailants, to finding lost or kidnapped children and lost senior citizens, to even tracking down bank robbery suspects.

“I can tell you we've had success,” she says, confidently.

There’s really two ways this works: first, a police department can post a photo or a status to their own page, alerting the public to be on the lookout for X-person, or that X-crime has been committed and they need help gathering information related to it.

This is the most common way social media helps to solve crimes. In years past, such alerts had to be broadcast through news channels, which, don’t reach nearly the same population, nearly as quickly as does social media. Now, with a simple status update or photo upload, police departments can post a warning or a wanted picture, instantly, to tens of thousands of people with just a click of a button.

“The hope is, that community members who are either on mobile devices or sitting at their computers with their laptops might see that information and help us,” says Spaulding. They put out a bat-signal and their online army of virtual vigilantes gets to work. Soon after, the tips and information start flowing in, and, with luck, a suspect is identified and arrested.

That’s the best-case scenario.

However, the other way that this new method for crime-fighting plays out, is a little less ideal, according to Spaulding.

“We really struggle with people posting either a crime in progress or a crime that has taken place or someone at risk, like someone being held at gunpoint or someone talking about suicide,” she says. “Social media is the worst place they can post that.”

Yes, it’s true. Some people, witnessing a crime, experiencing a crime, or turning up at the scene of one, instead of dialing 9-1-1 and reporting it to the police, whip out their phones, take a photo or video, and post it to social media.

Sure, it’s maybe better than not reporting the crime at all, but not by much.

“Even if we have 24-hour coverage [of social media], the time that could elapse between seeing the post or the comment or the message and then having to make another call to a dispatcher is time wasted,” says Spaulding. “If an initial report could have been made to 9-1-1, that person's life could be been saved.”

The bat signal only works one way, people. If you encounter an emergency, don’t go posting it to social media. Call emergency services.

Still, even with challenges like that, social media has proven to be relatively effective for solving crimes. Spaulding described one instance, where an attempted robbery went wrong and Facebook helped catch the suspects.

The incident occurred in Wheat Ridge at the American hotel, when two would-be burglars busted into a hotel room, armed and dangerous, to try and rob the guest within. That guest had a 10-year-old service dog named Nalla, who attacked the burglar after he pistol whipped her owner. The man shot Nalla, injuring her leg, before fleeing the scene with his accomplice.

However, their bumbling escape was caught on camera.

“We put that out on social media,” says Spaulding. “And those individuals were identified and arrested. I think one of them was even sentenced.”

Sentenced to 10 hard years. And good riddance, too. Nalla had to have her leg amputated as a result of the gunshot wound.  

Image credit: Wheat Ridge PD

This is exactly the kind of crime that Sarah Johnston gets tipped off to all day long. Johnston works for Metro Denver Crime Stoppers, a non-profit organization that offers rewards for anonymous tips that help to solve crimes in Denver. They are not law enforcement themselves, but frequently help law enforcement track down suspects using Facebook and Twitter.  

Johnston described how, after a string of recent smash-and-grab robberies in Aurora, an anonymous Facebook tip led police straight to the perpetrators.

“Somebody saw those suspects on our crime stoppers Facebook page, called our tip line said, ‘this is who they are,’” says Johnston. Crime Stoppers relayed that to area police, the police tracked down the suspect and made an arrest.

Case closed.

How reliable is this method for hunting down criminals, actually, though? Social media is a virtual breeding ground for lies and deceit – a place that fosters delusions as often as it cultivates mistruth. What are the chances that misinformation is passed along to law enforcement that manipulates or misdirects their investigation?

According to both Spaulding and Johnston, chances are high – but that’s always going to be part of the job.

“That's just part of police work,” says Spaulding. “There are always going to be tips that have to be tracked down to see if they are valid or not… this wouldn't be any different than a phone call tip.”

“We do get bogus tips just like law enforcement,” affirmed Johnston. “But it’s pretty easy to weed those out.”

So, there’s really no net loss here (unless you’re a criminal on the run). No real negative aspects to this new wave of virtual police work. And organizations like Crime Stoppers even monetize the incentive for people to provide information, offering rewards on a case-by-case basis.

“For a homicide case, our tipster will wind up with $2000. For a non-dangerous fugitive or something, that someone calls in, that’s usually around $150,” says Johnston. You call Crime Stoppers – (720) 913-STOP (7867) – with the tip, you get a codename, and, if your tip leads to an arrest, a private bank will set up a transfer to get you your money. All anonymously.

“It’s a pretty well-oiled machine,” says Johnston.

A crime solving machine, that is giving police the tools they need to do their jobs more effectively. It dilates their scope of scrutiny and expands their pool of potential tipsters so they can get more information, faster, to solve more crimes and catch more bad guys.

Who needs super heroes when you’ve got police with these kinds of super-tools?