by and for citizen investigative journalists

Overly Social Media and Risks to Law Enforcement: San Diego Shooting

November 6, 2015

By Veli-Pekka Kivimäki

Just after 9AM on November 5th, 2015, police in San Diego responded to a domestic violence call in the Bankers Hill area. Upon arriving at the scene, officers immediately came under high-powered rifle fire. After the officers retreated and started setting up a perimeter, the suspect in the shooting, later identified as 33-year-old Titus Colbert, started firing into the neighborhood from an overwatch position at the apartment complex.

The situation led to a 5-hour siege, and ultimately resulted in the arrest of the suspect, without any casualties. However, while the siege was ongoing, multiple posts were made on social media, from which it was possible to determine locations of two sniper teams deployed to the scene, as well as locations of several other police officers around the apartment complex.

Such detailed information can put law enforcement officers responding to the scene of an active shooting at a disadvantage and increased risk, if the assailant(s) are able to use the knowledge of the officers’ locations to inform their actions. We’ll examine some of the photos uploaded to Twitter in this post.

An early tweet from the scene shows an officer on a sidewalk, possibly aiming towards the building where the suspect was located.

Even without prior knowledge of the area, it’s possible to quickly determine the location to be an entrance to a building near the suspect’s location.

SWAT officer's location

A bit later, a report from the scene show a group of officers.

Larger version of the image:

Group of officers

Also here, we can identify the location to be on the same block with the building the suspect was in.

Location of officers

This image already sparked a response shortly thereafter from the local police officer’s association:

Around the same time, another tweet shows what appears to be a SWAT sniper team moving into position on a building’s roof.

A closer look at the image:

SWAT sniper team

Geolocation of the photo tells us the sniper team is on the roof of a building on the same block as the apartment complex where the shooter was located, and the first picture of a tactical officer on the sidewalk was at the entrance of this same building.

SWAT sniper photo location

The next photo shared during the siege shows a sniper on a rooftop.

SWAT sniper

This location can be determined directly across the street from the suspect’s apartment complex.

swat-garage-location

An image originally linked to an online real estate listing gives a better match for the tone and texture for this building.

swat-garage-location2

Thus, we can just from these four photos taken during the siege determine certain tactically significant locations. And there are more:

Mapping the photos immediately around the block, we get the following result.

The San Diego shooting is just one example of a case where law enforcement has asked the public and media to hold off on reporting movements and locations of officers in real time. On April 19th, 2013 during the manhunt of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (later convicted for his part in Boston Marathon bombing), Boston PD issued the following appeal on Twitter:

This incident also prompted an article on Columbia Journalism Review discussing the subject of ‘war zone requests’.

While it may seem unlikely that a single suspect in the middle of a siege or manhunt would check social media for information on law enforcement’s activities, the possibility of a willing collaborator providing such information to a suspect should not be dismissed offhand. In the US, constitutional protections of free speech allow law enforcement officers to be photographed in public places. The question thus is not about whether law enforcement officers during operations can be filmed, but when is it prudent to publish that material. Sometimes, a photo posted on social media can mean the difference between life and death.

Veli-Pekka Kivimäki

Veli-Pekka is a doctoral student at Finnish National Defence University, researching open source intelligence and use of social media. He has a long background in product development, along with military and emergency management experience.

8 Comments

  1. boggled

    Mr Veli-Pekka,
    A good reminder to the public and reporters that while wanting to cover events as they happen, a certain amount of discretion should be used in what is released as it happens.

    An excellent reminder for those world wide and things to consider for those who are attempting to catch police brutality and or other violent events and get their little fame on Twitter or YouTube.
    The police officers generally have family at home and some discretion MUST be used in covering the news.
    A small suggestion for the end of the article.
    Change – The question thus is not about whether law enforcement officers during operations can be filmed, but when is it prudent to publish that material.
    To – The question thus is not about whether law enforcement officers during operations can be filmed, but when is it prudent to publish that material in real time.

    I do not think most law enforcement are opposed to images being posted by the press, I just think compromising an investigation or an arrest or law enforcement action is what they object to.

    Thank you for increasing awareness of the subject

    Fare thee well

    Reply
  2. Dawn Dawson

    I’ve heard this going back 8 yrs & no real examples of endangerment and actually can be more of an assistance to LE with overall situational awareness. News Helicopters are more of a threat and there are TRF’s for that. Not just “unlikely that a single suspect in the middle of a siege or manhunt would check social media” only example close more recently was the NY escapees using local radio stations for information. Not about the social media many more ways to be connected. Besides if anyone can see where the police are don’t you think the suspect can also looking out the window? Or logically know if they are surrounded what that means? Maybe the problem isn’t the citizen but those fear mongering about social. How about using current tech like blocking transmissions, cutting electric at the location and a myriad of other available options first and use the citizen generated intel, that may save a responders life. Citizen/News generated images helped in the Sydney Siege as they had the optimal views. Also can’t always ask the public for assistance then shut them down. Be careful what you ask for or impose with a heavy hand because you may find no one willing to help when it’s needed most.

    Reply
    • Philip Prolly

      Thank god someone was willing to call “BS” on this article. Bellingcat has really gone full Statist, going so far as to put out entire articles of how that “darn’d technology is putting more power in the hands of the people! Goodness! We can’t have that! Its just so DANGEROUS for people to have any degree of control and to make calls about their behavioral choices based on their own discretion! Let’s write an article exposing how evil these ‘social media users’ are!”

      As said above ^^^^^, there is literally NO proof, ZERO, that “people posting pictures on social media of police officers involved in an active situation have negatively affected (or, lo, affected in any way, shape, or form) the outcome of that situation.”

      This is just one of the many examples of Bellingcat’s soon and inevitable drifting of into obscurity. Word of the wise, guys, if you want to be accepted as intelligent people, working hard to uncover the truth, you have to try to prove yourself wrong, look for conflicting evidence. That is one of the most important parts of the scientific method, and its something you NEVER do. As soon as you’ve seemingly backed up your preconceived notions with anything greater than a smidgeon of evidence, you post some congratulatory article about how great you guys are for being able to *do this*.

      Anyways, thanks John

      Reply
  3. MetroSkunk

    These pics could have been posted at much lesser risks to police if time was taken to crop out unnecessary background surrounding officers. This would have satisfied the need to post real-time pics while also observing officer safety. It only takes 15 seconds to crop a photo.

    Reply
    • Ian Tunnicliffe

      Great article. In fact there has been a previous incident that I am aware of where real time social media posts posed a threat to life.

      During an Al Shabaab attack on the Hotel Maka Al Mukaram in Mogadishu on 27th March 2015. Number of people were trapped in the hotel and tried to hide from the gunmen on the roof of the building. They were photographed doing so and the photos posted on social media as the incident turned into a siege. At the time the gunmen were still in communication with other members of the group who were likely to have been monitoring the media and social media. I think the people survived but the social media posts were raised as a major concern.

      http://www.reuters.com/article/us-somalia-attacks-idUSKBN0MO06R20150328

      Reply
      • max

        during the massacre at the munich olympics, the telivision crews filmed soldiers taking positions on the roof, as the terrorists watched

        Reply

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