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Law enforcement decided to release the photos of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers not only to solicit public help in locating the men, but also to quell Internet investigations that led to individuals being wrongly suspected, according to the Washington Post who spoke with Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis.
Shortly after law enforcement made a request for photos and videos of last Monday’s Boston Marathon, the Internet began to sort through its own collection, looking for people with big bags or backpacks. The idea was a good one — crowdsourcing could lead to an identified suspect faster than the smaller pool of law enforcement resources. But after the New York Post released a newspaper with two innocent civilians under the headline, “BAG MEN” — and many others were pointed out online — police decided they needed to put an end to the vigilante detective work.
The decision came down to more than just the desire to stop websites such as Reddit and 4chan, which had threads dedicated to finding the bombers. The FBI also hoped to head off news outlets from correctly identifying the bombers, according to The Washington Post. This was because the public was beginning to sympathize with those incorrectly identified. The FBI feared that the public would also be sympathetic toward the real bombers if their images were released. Of course, the FBI also wanted the public’s help in finding the men they were sure killed three people and injuring many more that day.
Facial recognition didn’t help the investigation either, according to Commissioner Davis. Despite the fact that both bombers’ images existed in official databases, the images offered up by the public and surveillance cameras weren’t high-quality enough for the technology to understand the bombers’ faces.
Instead, traditional detective work won out as one officer rewatched the same video footage 400 times to piece together the movements of those suspected. This, however, is likely where the crowdsourcing effort helped out. All the videos and images provided could have painted a panoramic picture of the scene that day, to help law enforcement follow their suspects down the street.
But Reddit definitely provided some value in the situation. On the night of the shootout between the bombers and police in Watertown, a Redditor with access to a police scanner recorded the events as they unfolded. It was timely, and sourced straight from law enforcement. This kind of effort not only kept people up to date, but also gave anyone (who reads Reddit) a quick warning to stay inside.
Photo credit: FBI