Should Police Turn to Crowdsourced Online Sleuthing?

Should Police Turn to Crowdsourced Online Sleuthing?
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Why you should care

Websleuths owner Tricia Griffiths believes online detective work will become nearly as important as DNA for solving crimes.

We’ve all been riveted by stunning criminal mysteries and whodunits. Most of America was horrified, for example, by the brutal murder of child beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey in Colorado in 1996. Theories abound as to why she was killed and whether she was sexually assaulted. But 22 years later, we still don’t know exactly what happened to the 6-year-old girl, or who was responsible.

Cold case files across the United States, meanwhile, are on the rise. Just last week, reports pointed to a falling national murder clearance rate — of just 59.4 percent in 2016, the lowest level ever. That means we’re fast approaching a situation in which only one out of every two U.S. murders will be solved in the future. Unless something gives.

Cue Tricia Griffiths, owner of Websleuths, who has a message for U.S. law enforcement: “Join the 21st century.” Ordinary people from all walks of life come together via Griffiths’ website to dissect clues to crimes and unravel real-life mysteries. She tells us why she believes citizen sleuths and social media are key to solving crimes in the future.

What is it that you do exactly with Websleuths?

Griffiths: Here’s how I envision it: Websleuths is the 21st-century version of America’s Most Wanted. We’d sit down, John Walsh would tell us about a crime, they had a bank of phones, and people would call in. [Websleuths] takes it a whole other step further into the 21st century.

I’ve read about a member of Websleuths who drew a forensic sketch that helped identify a Jane Doe from 1975. Can you tell me more about him and that process?

That’s Carl Koppelman. He is the perfect, shining, brilliant example of what people who just want to come in and help can do. … He had no background. He’s an accountant who decided, “I like to draw. Let’s see if I can draw from these morgue pictures a better sketch.” Sometimes he has nothing to go on but a skull.

That’s the beauty of it. Thousands of fresh eyes looking at it for nothing.

Tricia Griffiths, owner of Websleuths

Does law enforcement reach out for your help?

Yes. One particular case the detective called me from a small town in Nevada, and there was a murdered body they had found on a hiking trail with no identification. The only thing they had was a T-shirt he was wearing.

They had been trying for over 20 years to identify that shirt, hoping it would lead to this person’s identity. We put up the picture. One of our members looked at it, and for some reason, she thought to go on Etsy. Within 36 hours she had where it was made, who made it, where it was sold. These poor cops had been trying to find this information for 20 years and she found it within 36 hours.

How does the law enforcement community in general feel about the work you do?

If I’m wrong, I want to be proven wrong. But I think there is this mentality in law enforcement of “This is our case, and we have to solve it.” I think there’s a fear they’ll be looked down upon if they work with us.

Will that change? Do you think law enforcement will begin working more with social media in the future?

Social sleuthing, web sleuthing, is going to be the wave of the future. Law enforcement agencies have to get used to that, and they have to learn that there is an incredible resource they’re not tapping into. Imagine having thousands of people from all over the world from all kinds of backgrounds looking at your case, at some dull, boring piece of information that you can’t figure out why it’s important, and having all these people coming in to look at it for free and figure it out for you.

I know there’s going to be agencies kicking and screaming. Join the 21st century. Social media is evolving, and cases are getting solved. To me, it’s like a step down from DNA. I think the next step down [from DNA] is going to be social media helping the police. It’s going to be that important.

What, specifically, can your site or others like it do to assist law enforcement?

If law enforcement comes across a cold case or any case they have and they have some piece of evidence, evidence that just sucks up the time of their detectives and needs to be looked up on the internet, they can hand off clues. [These can be] things they need to research that takes up a lot of their time and budget — let us do it. We’re thrilled with the mundane. You give us something mundane that you’ve looked at for 20 years, we’re looking at it fresh and we’re excited. That’s the beauty of it. Thousands of fresh eyes looking at it for nothing. … We’re just waiting for orders. We can do all kinds of things for them and they can take all the credit. We just want to help.

If you could know the answer to one unsolved mystery, which one would it be?

That’s a good question. I would like to know who the Long Island serial killer is.

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