In the hours following the release of a grand jury’s decision not to indict the NYPD officer who killed Eric Garner, Twitter users began protesting the verdict with a very contemporary response: Politicized self-confessions of their criminal activity. The viral flood of responses under the hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite purport to tell of times crimes (ranging from the petty to the serious with everything in-between) were ignored or forgiven by law enforcement.
The tweets, which aim to show the alleged double standards shown by law enforcement towards black and white suspects, are written in solidarity with protesters upset at the grand jury outcomes in both the Garner and Michael Brown cases. But they’re also something new: Protest via conscious self-confession of wrongdoing on social media. In order to show their anger at how they perceive law enforcement to act, thousands of everyday people across America are also voluntarily linking their names to everything from auto thefts to bar fights. Could this lead to investigations being reopened or some awkward job interviews down the road?
David Chipman, a former special agent for the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms who now works for law enforcement tech firm Shotspotter tells Fast Company that although he encountered confessions of past wrongdoings on Postsecret before, this was the first time he’s seen people confessing to crimes online as part of a spontaneous campaign. A big part of it, he added, is that it brings attention to the confessors just as much as to law enforcement officials who have “enormous discretionary power” to arrest or look the other way.
Speaking off the record, an East Coast-based beat cop added that it was an open question whether law enforcement would reopen cases based on Twitter hashtag confessions. While they said the odds were small for petty crimes, they said it could be more likely for major cases. They also noted that a big part of the way they treated people caught in the act of drug use depended on the context; a “scumbag” who’s smoking a joint in public is more likely to be arrested while use by teenage smokers is more likely to be tolerated.
But all this circles back to the most important thing that participants in #CrimingWhileWhite have to keep in mind when confessing to crimes online: The police keep a close eye on social media. Marc Costa, a New Jersey police officer speaking in his capacity as CEO of law enforcement startup MIR Systems, says “Social media is one of the go-to tools now for law enforcement. If you’re looking for someone, you check Facebook. You look for acquaintances and local friends you know a person hangs out with. Twitter is the same thing–we use it to follow timelines and track peoples’ actions. You can’t use it solely as evidence but you can use it as part of an investigation.”
For more context about alleged double standards by police in social media, check out the Twitter hashtag #alivewhileblack (which details treatment by law enforcement of law-abiding citizens) and Thee Rant, a private bulletin board which serves as a popular gathering place for NYPD officers online.