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How can ‘citizen journalists’ help police and security agencies fight global terrorism?

We live in dangerous and uncertain times. All over the world acts of terrorism put citizens at risk while simultaneously placing enormous pressure on emergency services particularly law enforcement and national security agencies. The time of clearly defined and easily identified threats is long gone, and if there is an enemy to our way of life and thinking, he or she has become increasingly difficult to identify and to locate.

With the increase in terrorist activity and violence around the globe, it is also no longer the case that acts of violent terrorism are limited to war zones or the developing world. As recent attacks in North America and particularly in Europe clearly show, terrorists can and will attack what they consider to be ‘soft’ targets, usually unguarded locations or where civilians gather together, now almost anywhere in the world.

Paris, Brussels, Jakarta, Nice, even Dallas, show that a prepared, motivated and well-equipped terrorist or group of terrorists can wreak enormous damage, both in human and financial terms. Even more worryingly, there is very little that police and other agencies can do to prevent these kinds of attacks.

Clearly, there are many examples of attacks that have been prevented through effective intelligence gathering, analysis and response. In most cases the public will probably never even know that an attack was being planned or about to take place. In those instances where an attack has been thwarted, it’s often information and assistance from the community that makes this possible in the first place. Even in cases where an attack has taken place, information from witnesses to the incident and from the wider community is crucial both to investigating and eventually prosecuting the terrorists responsible, but for preventing future attacks as well. Luckily police and national security agencies can access an increased number of CCTV cameras to get footage of an attack to assist their investigations.

It is also increasingly the case that people who were present and who have witnessed an attack have taken their own pictures or videos of the incident, sometimes without even realizing that they have crucial evidence in their possession. The kind of information captures by these ‘citizen journalists’ can prove crucial to an investigation, and the on-the-ground video and other evidence that witnesses can provide will often reduce the time required to conclude an investigation and bring perpetrators to justice, as well as prevent future attacks.

Unfortunately the steps between a citizen taking a key piece of video footage, and police and security agencies gaining access to that footage, can be many and complicated, and people themselves may not be aware of the importance of the evidence they’ve captured, or they may not know how to get this information to law enforcement personnel in the quickest way possible.

But what if there was a way for police and security agencies to access this kind of information and evidence immediately after an attack, and how much quicker would the investigation lead to the apprehension of the perpetrator(s) if agencies knew who might have witnessed an event? More importantly, how could police and security agencies alert witnesses to the fact that they have evidence in their possession which could lead to an arrest and potentially prevent further acts of violence?

Community based policing methodologies can now be leveraged using a simple cell phone-based application that not only reaches out to large communities of connected witnesses by alerting them to the fact that they may have crucial evidence in their possession, and offering them an immediate response and contact point that ensures the evidence reaches investigators as quickly as possible.

Leveraging the increasing connectivity of citizen journalists in the detection and prevention of offences and the apprehension of those responsible is the next step in community based policing, and it is happening now.

Mark Reber is a former member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with 20 years professional experience in policing and security sector reform.

Prior to leaving the RCMP Mark was seconded to several policing oversight agencies, including five years as Chief of Staff to the Oversight Commissioner for Policing Reform in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and eighteen months as a Senior Inspector with the Garda Síochána Inspectorate in Dublin, Republic of Ireland. His subsequent professional efforts were focused on leading policing reform assessments in Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central America, continuing to strengthen civilian oversight in Northern Ireland, providing expert advice on police complaints and internal discipline systems in Palestine, and providing anti-corruption capacity building in southern Africa.

Mark holds a Diploma in Management from the University of Ulster, a Master of Arts degree in International Relations from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, and Bachelor of Arts degrees in Politics from the University of Toronto and in International Relations from Carleton University.