A picture is worth a thousand words – but that picture, and those words, can be used against you in a court of law if they involve criminal activity and are posted on social media sites or apps.

The Aiken Department of Public Safety and the Aiken County Sheriff's Office each have a presence on two of the most popular social media sites, Facebook and Twitter, and they use the platforms in a variety of ways, including investigating and solving crimes, public outreach and crime prevention.

The use of social media in law enforcement has been increasing as lawmen embrace the medium as a crime-fighting tool.

According to a survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, more than 80 percent of 500 law enforcement agencies surveyed reported using social media of some kind in criminal investigations.

Social media helps

Capt. Maryann Burgess, a spokesperson for Aiken Public Safety, oversees the juvenile division, which handles a number of cases involving social media.

“Sometimes we'll run into a bunch of cases, and then we won't have any in months,” she said. “We've had a couple that bordered on where we can actually criminally charge a teenager or a child with some form of criminal activity.” These cases included impersonating someone using a fake account or sending threatening messages to a person.

Burgess said using social media is also helpful in disseminating information to the public more quickly.

Aiken Public Safety has about 4,500 “likes” on its Facebook page, and if there is a situation developing – from a road closure to a manhunt – the agency can share the information directly to its followers, who in turn share it with their “friends.”

The Sheriff's Office has about 4,600 likes on its Facebook page.

Capt. Eric Abdullah said social media allows lawmen to communicate directly with the public, whereas formerly, the quickest way was to communicate with them was through media outlets.

“It's a way for us to send an alert out, and it also gives our local media outlets a chance to grab that same information off our page and share that with their contacts,” he said. “It comes down to being able to speak directly to our citizens.”

Abdullah said it also gives agencies the opportunity to show that they do more than law enforcement, and noted the photos on the Sheriff's Office page of officers helping at the Special Olympics or at community events.

But it has its drawbacks

Burgess said criminals often aren't shy about sharing information about a possible crime on the Internet.

“People have that false sense of security that, if I post it on my Facebook and my Facebook is private, what I say, no one can see,” she said. “We have legal means to access some forms of social media immediately if there's a danger, and we could use those legal channels to obtain that information through the court system.”

However, a posting or photo isn't enough to lock up a case.

“Even if we subpoena someone's information, we still have to do our job and investigate and make sure that person is the one that was using that application or that website,” Burgess said. “We would still want to make sure we've done our appropriate follow-ups and investigation to make sure that information we've received is accurate.”

Dr. Melencia Johnson, a sociology professor at USC Aiken who specializes in criminology, said the public can rush to judgment based on something a law enforcement agency posts on its page.

“Public opinion can hang you quicker than a jury can,” she said. “And that's one of the downsides because you're not going to find a lot of people who haven't heard about a particular case and formed an opinion about it before it even goes to trial.”

Abdullah said people are going to react in their own way to information law enforcement shares.

“We look forward to people responding to us on our social media sites,” he said. “The downfall is, some folks are uncensored. We understand that not everyone is going to be happy about things that are posted on there, and we know it's a public forum.”

Johnson said another possible drawback is the risk of officers posting information about their cases on their own online profiles.

Burgess said the agency has guidelines in place governing officers' use of social media.

The constant evolution of social media, with new messaging mediums such as Kik and Snapchat, makes it difficult for law enforcement to keep up with the nuances.

“It is a challenge to law enforcement, and I think any law enforcement agency nationwide, to keep up with all the technology that's out there, apps that are constantly coming out.”

Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard.