Do-it-yourself citizen investigations with the Sherlock app

There you are, just back from a party and, as it turns out, your house has been broken into. The traces can be clearly seen. The adrenaline rushes through your body. You’re going to track down that burglar! But how do you handle that?

In the Netherlands, TNO is currently developing a DIY Detective app together with Dutch Police that enables citizens to help criminal investigations.

The web and app enabled platform dubbed Sherlock allows citizens to do their own investigations for various crime types. For example, victims of home burglary, sexual assault, cyberbullying or theft can start their own criminal investigation file via the app. Depending on the crime, they use the app to record the location of the crime, visible traces left by the perpetrators, any possible motive, witness statements and an inventory of stolen goods. Another possibility is to create a composition photo of a suspect (although so far many people find it hard to place the right eyes, ears or nose to a face). That is why the app contains a training function with faces of famous people. When the criminal dossier is complete they can easily share a search message via various social media channels or e-mail. And then send the complete file to the police, so they can take action. Citizens and police can exchange updates of their findings via the app.

House to house investigations in your own neighbourhood

The app makes it possible to use the wisdom of the crowd.  Through the MEDI@SEC project we have utilised the insights gained from the project’s first workshop on DIY Policing into local practice. The police are now using traditional methods through, for example, a TV program asking citizens for tips on crime. But citizens do not only have eyes and ears, but also brains, hands and legs. Via this app the citizen can be mobilized. For example, neighbourhood investigations cost a lot of time and manpower. What is more convenient than visiting your neighbours yourself for a statement after a break-in? You know when they are at home and thanks to the app I also know what to ask them. The police no longer have to do everything themselves. They can make better use of their limited resources and hopefully more cases will be solved. “

DIY Detectives

If citizens are going to track down perpetrators themselves, this also entails risks. For example, high rising emotions can lead to the victim playing judge and jury though this is also the case without the app. You cannot always stop civilians. Currently they are already starting their own investigations using social media, because they notice that the police do not give priority to all cases or suffer from a lack of resources. There are plenty of recent examples. A woman near Amsterdam tracked her attacker using “Find My iPhone” whilst a father searched through social media for someone who flipped a wine bottle over his back in the face of his daughter at festival offering a reward after she needed plastic surgery. The phenomenon of DIY Detectives is still relatively new and small but it is a trend that is becoming increasingly important and one which law enforcement cannot ignore. For this reason the Sherlock app does not only help in the investigation, but also gives citizens information about prevention and what is and is not allowed both ethically and within the law. And it makes clear what the consequences are of some actions, such as the online sharing of names and photos of suspects and victims.

Culture change

At this moment the Sherlock app is still a prototype and not yet actually in use. TNO hopes to further develop this innovative app in the context of the national police program ‘Strengthening Investigation And Prosecution’. Within this national renewal program Citizen participation is given the necessary attention, because the Dutch police force have realised the value and need for the active role and cooperation of citizens. The innovative Sherlock app is a first tool for this. At the same time a change in culture and mindset is required within the police. Citizens’ participation is often still seen as a last resort to resolve a case. Police professionals are worried that citizens could harm a case and perpetrators might not be sentenced. Yet our anecdotal evidence suggests that most citizens act in good will. And this is why we will be continuing to experiment with and develop the app in 2018.

It takes time to achieve a more open attitude towards well-intentioned citizens and to change police processes alongside it. But if this can be achieved, police and citizens can experience the cooperation in this way, allowing more respect and trust in each other. The modern Sherlock with an app could one of the tools which helps make this change.

Arnout de Vries



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