The New Era of Homicide Investigations

March 2023

How new digital solutions are a force multiplier for law enforcement investigators

Popular culture is filled with depictions of homicide investigations, from true crime documentaries to outlandish fictional stories about deranged psychopaths and criminal masterminds. Perhaps the only thing that these various media depictions tend to get right most of the time is the seriousness of the crime. While notion of a killer who stumps investigators by committing murder without leaving any evidence behind is great for the plot of a movie, most killers leave a range of clues. In addition to the standard types of evidence that are collected at a death scene (fingerprints, hair, blood, shoe prints, tool impressions, etc.), investigators are utilizing social media analytics to bolster their investigation options and find vital information that’s not revealed by standard death scene investigation processes.

Virtually everyone in the industrialized world uses some kind of social media accounts on a regular basis, and criminals are no exception. In fact, many criminals have separate accounts for their public interactions and their criminal communications. The same person who posts birthday wishes and family photos on one account may be coordinating drug deals or conspiring to hide a murder weapon through a different account. According to Voyager Labs’ Jason Webb, a former Sergeant, Investigations with the Oxford, Alabama Police Department with 12 years experience leading criminal investigations, one of the most useful applications of modern social media investigation tools is to locate “ghost accounts” used by criminals. Powered by artificial intelligence (AI), these software platforms can begin with information about a suspect or person of interest and recognize patterns of language, activities, contacts, and other data to locate any other accounts used by that individual. Through this process, investigators may be able to establish connections to victims, weapons, criminal organizations, and other persons of interest. Investigators often take statements from several witnesses and victim contacts in order to analyze their social media accounts to find hidden patterns and connections that could be relevant to the case.

Once all of a person’s accounts have been located, investigators can request a court-ordered social media warrant to access both public and private messages and other data in the accounts. This data, provided by social media network operators in unstructured PDF files of often 50,000 pages or more, is challenging for investigators to analyze using manual methods. Fortunately, new social media warrant reader tools are now available which can take these large PDFs and map the contents back to its original, more readable and searchable format. This type of warrant reader streamlines the analysis process, allowing users to quickly and efficiently analyze data from the related accounts, connecting a wide range of types of information.

One application of social media analysis is to establish a person’s whereabouts at a specific date and time. This information may be used to support or challenge an alibi, especially if location tracking was enabled through the social media platform. If the person in question was posting photos from a public place at the time of a crime, this information may help to rule that person out of direct involvement. If, on the other hand, the social media accounts place a suspect in the vicinity of the crime scene in a certain timeframe, this data may point towards opportunity to commit the homicide.

The visual analysis capabilities of modern AI platforms are particularly helpful in homicide investigations. Analysts can upload photos or video from CCTV footage, cell phone captures, security cameras, and even Ring doorbell video provided by concerned citizens. The AI system scours the databases, the worldwide web, the deep web, and the dark web to compare faces, weapons, clothing, shoes, tattoos, and many other visual components in order to offer investigators possible matches. They can further match these images to social media images to link suspects to locations, weapons, co-conspirators, and written communications regarding homicide or other criminal activities. If photos and videos are not available, users can still get visual matches by entering keyword descriptions of suspects, their clothing, and their possessions. For instance, if an eyewitness describes the suspect’s physical characteristics and adds the details “blue coveralls and a red baseball hat,” the AI system will pull the best matches of photos and video from all available data sources for the investigator to examine.

Homicide investigation techniques have improved dramatically since Dr. Edmond Locard explored the notion that “Every contact leaves a trace.” Now, in the 21st century, this principle ranges far beyond physical evidence and into the digital world. With revolutionary developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI), investigators have a force multiplier that permits them to analyze an ocean of unstructured data with unprecedented speed and accuracy, bringing greater efficiency to court proceedings and swifter justice for victims.

To hear Jason Webb discuss some of the new solutions aiding homicide investigations, sign up for the “New Era of Homicide Investigations” webinar on April 19th.  Register here.

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