kopschoppers-621x328Involving citizens in crime investigaions pays off. A good example of this was the assault case late januari 2013 in Eindhoven, known as the “head kickers”. This mistreatment led to a fierce debate about the use of civilians in criminal investigations. The police are increasingly involving citizens and the debate on civilian investigators (citizen dicks) will probably continue for a while. This blog post provides some background and insights into the debate. Remarks from the media and authoritative specialists have been put together.

A reconstruction
Eight boys (15 to 19 years old) from the Turnhout area (Belgium) were on a night out in Eindhoven. At a certain moment there was some irritation to which one guy hit a chain on a bicycle. A passer-by (a 22-year-old student from Oirschot) said something. That innocent remark led to punching and kicking of this passer. They left him eventually, not knowing if we was still dead or alive.
Three weeks later, the police made ??sure that the images of this brutal abuse were shown on a regional television program. The case couldn’t easily be solved but by consulting citizens the case suddenly had a breakthrough. The YouTube film was distributed online by people who expressed shock. Facebook and Twitter also joined in. Within a few days, three Dutch boys reported to the police in Eindhoven. They were arrested immediately.

Citizen detectives:

Increasingly the police involves citizens in police investigations. Through television, phone tip channels and releasing images over the internet. And it works: crimes are often solved very effectively. Suspects often present themselves spontaneously to the police because of all the publicity. But there is a downside: what if the released pictures lead to a massive manhunt for the perpetrators? Photos and names of the alleged perpetrators appeared in full on social media sites like GeenStijl. An innocent man?that had the same name?of one of the accused received dozens of threatening phone calls.

Consulting and involving citizens in policing is a growing trend. Nicole Zandee told the news it’s a good thing “to involve citizen is very effective”. According to research?TV programs like Opsporing Verzicht (the Dutch crime watch) led to significantly higher succes rates in solving crimes.

View the following fragment [Dutch]:

The case file in “Opsporing Verzocht” [Dutch]:

Assistant professor of criminal law at the University of Groningen Nico Kwakman said: “The involvement of citizens makes the public prosecution responsible for the dynamics, to a certain extent.?If you involve citizens there is a risk that some of them go too far.” Kwakman refers to the fires in Winschoten where the police was looking for an arsonist. “The police involved citizens and said be watchful. There is nothing wrong with that, but some people may misunderstand instructions like: if we find the culprit, we will teach him a lesson” So far, it’s just words from citizens who are excited about the particular crime, says Kwakman. “But I’m afraid sometimes of the consequences, as I notice how some people talk about cowardly judgments or how they talk about the right to self-defense in self-defense situations.” And therefore Kwakman says the public prosecution must indicate clear boundaries to citizens. He praises the press release that called for stopping vigilantism. “But image the police consulting citizens and something goes wrong, then the police must look itself in the mirror,” says Kwakman. “Is there good tradeoff? Was there no risk to the suspects?”

In the same article NRC Diederik Greive , chief prosecutor responsible for investigative reports in the media:

“We do make such considerations every time. We weigh the privacy interests of the defendants appearing in the picture against the investigative interests. The invasion of privacy, says Greive, “is influenced by what happens on social media. So we weigh the consequences.” But, he says, if the offense is serious, other investigative methods lead to nothing, and it is expected that the involvement of citizens can be effective, then we can make the footage public.” The public prosecutor is far from responsable for a manhunt. Greive: “We’re responsable for what we do. Not for the things that others do. “It’s users of social media, it is GeenStijl who decide to change suspects into perpetrators, and publish their names.” “Sure, one could argue: had we not released the footage no smear campaign would occur. But that doesn;t mean we caused it.” Let’s be clear on one thing, says Greive: “I’m not willing to sacrifice the security of citizens, or the justice of the case, just?because of the vagaries of twittering citizens and Facebook users. ”

Let’s put it the other way around, says Greive. ‘If we had kept back the images you had called me too. I maybe even had to answer parliamentary questioning. They would have had un-be-lie-va-ble that no images of the perpetrators were shared! A public call for security and justice would have prevailed. And that is exactly what citizens may expect from the justice department. “The public prosecution will not act by its own account against media that contributed to the manhunt. “We do not want a manhunt” In case of libel or slander, one can file a complaint or sue that person. None of the defendants did so far report an official complaint towards the media or social media accounts.

Diederik Greive, chief of investigative reporting at the public prosecution service:

The case made it clear how much effort the police and justice departments still have in assessing the strengths of social media and, where necessary, to manage it. Onlye people from ancient times remember an Internet where distribution of images and video footage could only done by sophisticated computer users. Nowadays anyone can, with just one finger and a smartphone. Increasingly the police is put to the test: if they do not broadcast the images themselves, the ‘brutal media’ or empowered citizens will. This requires new considerations and new risk analysis in crime investigation processes. With questions like: should it always be the filmclip itself or is it better to choose stills? And what are the safeguards if the defendant seems to be a minor?

The Dutch public prosecution service uses a guideline for media coverage of criminal cases. The directive states that it is important to take into account ‘the large (and growing) range of different media such as the Internet’. Another aspect to take into account is the fact that case reports once published do not necessarily allow revokal or removal. And what does it mean if your name and photo will be online, where you are always associated with a crime for which you have -in the end- served your sentence , or – worse – for a crime you did not even commit?

The Rotterdam criminologist Judith van Erp wrote: “Criminal investigations that share a case over the internet lead to a more equal relationship between the police and citizens, but also result in the fact that citizens share their own interpretation of the case at hand. This can be an addition to formal law enforcement, but they may also have start their own investigations which leads to arbitrary and disproportionate reactions.’ Criminal investigations are better off with the help of people that use the Internet – everyone agrees on that – but a proper solution to the disadvantages has yet to emerge.

The demands of the public prosecution:

The court ruling
Because of “extraordinary media attention” the criminal court in Den Bosch, gave two of the four suspects lower penalties than demanded. The main suspect Brent L. (now 18) got ten months of juvenile detention, four of which were suspended, while two years was demanded. Suspect Tom K. (17) got a half years sentence and three months of probation. The judge also noted that the boys had no priors and have expressed regret.

The judge accused the prosecution that it made ??the images available. This “explosion of violence” which was shown on regional television without wondering whether the identity of the suspects could be investigated using different means. Not only for the accused, but also for the victims the identities were exposed, said the judge . Less intrusive means could have been the spreading of still images of the individual defendants. The judge said to have found no evidence in the case file that the Prosecution had thought this through. The prosecutor in Eindhoven had not asked for permission by the senior officer as required by law to publish the footage. The court considers the fact that two suspects were no longer welcome at their employer and their education after the TV show and even at gyms and nightlife. The court assumes that the images remain available on the Internet forever and have “far reaching” consequences for the rest of their lives. A third suspect, who had a small share, received a sentence of two months. This offender was dismissed, but had a break up with his girl and became so seriously threatened during his detention he had to be transferred. The public blamed him for what he had done. The suspect had to be protected by the police for some time. A fourth defendant was also cut loose. Admittedly he said he stood close to the violent incident,but he did not contribute in any way.

Court judgment and background [dutch]:

Herman Bolhaar on the appeal [dutch]:

Main suspect regrets [dutch]:

Research: “Catching bad guys” on the Internet: cases of crime investigative reporting

Speech on citizens and criminal investigations of ?Mr. F. W. Bleichrodt [dutch]

Sources: NRC, NOS, Geenstijl, PenW,

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