DIY Policing: The Modern Sherlock Holmes


The Internet, smartphones and social media have become tools for citizens to perform activities that have traditionally fallen within the remit of the Police and other organisations dealing with public security. As modern Sherlock Holmes citizens may assist the police and go beyond both for good and not so good. Citizens investigate crimes, identify suspects, form vigilante groups, hunt paedophiles and report on crimes. The information, tools and expert knowledge have spread through the web. Open data sources have proved to be valuable for gathering intelligence and solving crimes and opening up previously professional work to citizens. .

Dutch Police initiatives in the area of DIY policing are notable in their success. Although the police only investigate 9% of cases raised by the BURGERNET network, these in turn account for 50% of successful police actions1. The active involvement of residents in preventing burglaries, by starting WhatsApp groups, has resulted in a sharp decrease of the number of burglaries. The number of burglaries per 1000 inhabitants decreased by approximately 40% with no evidence of burglaries moving to adjacent or adjoining neighbourhoods where no such WhatsApp group was set up2.

Another form of DIY policing is the use of open data sources to solve ‘cold’ cases that are no longer actively investigated by the police. For example, in the USA in a case where more than 10, 000 corpses remain unidentified several online communities such as the Doe Network (named after John Doe’s) have formed to match people from missing lists with unidentified corpses.

Citizens also investigate international incidents that go well beyond the scope of a single police force, such as the investigation undertaken by Bellingcat into the airplane crash of MH17. Here, citizen action provided useful insights by collecting information from various sources, including many social media channels.

But DIY policing by citizens also puts pressure on professional security workers. Whilst they are now assisted by a large virtual community, the lines of responsibility and authority can become blurred creating different problems.

DIY policing is often stimulated by emotive local issues. It often brings to the fore concerns over how and when citizens should engage with and be responsible for public security. Citizens’ actions can be effective yet controversial. When citizens publish names of offenders and personal details, they can reach hundreds of thousands or millions of people. The following examples highlight the dilemmas this creates:

  • In the case of a woman who was raped and murdered, civilians on social media advocated for people to “publicly hang” the suspect and included a photo and name of the person who had admitted to crimes.
  • Motivated by emotional media reports about cyber grooming, online groups have formed where members pose as child victims in cyber grooming and meet suspects.
  • A phenomenon named “digital vigilantism” describes how citizens engage in offensive acts to counteract actions of other citizens that they do not agree with.
  • After the riots in Vancouver in 2011, citizens used Facebook to publicly “name and shame” photos of rioters they had taken using mobile phones. While this information supported police investigations, it also constituted an overwhelming amount of data that often lacked the required contextual information. The citizen action in this case has also been characterized as an “unintended” DIY-society.

DIY policing can produces wrong and misleading information. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, citizen investigations led to misinformation on suspects and rumours being wisely circulated on social media, endangering people that got incorrectly identified as suspects.

The distribution of volunteers in DIY policing is also a potential concern. Users in such DIY police support networks commonly underrepresent women and young people. There have been warnings that initiatives such as BURGERNET can have a negative effect on social cohesion. Turning every citizen into would-be police officers poses the risk of decreasing trust among citizens; citizens are not properly trained to act on behalf of other citizens, nor is it possible to hold them accountable for their actions.

DIY policing is in many ways a phenomenon of growing relevance for public security planners. On the one hand, we see citizens taking coordinated action in places where public security falls short or fails. Citizens often investigate when the police have given up, do not have enough resources, or cannot respond in a speed that the public expects. Thus the question arises as to whether DIY policing can become an indicator for public security organizations to find the hot spots in which to increase their efforts or to reduce them and allow citizens to take over. On the other hand, it appears that (especially Dutch) police forces are making a concerted effort in co-creating security jointly with citizens. The many platforms and initiatives that are emerging underline the Dutch forerunner role in making best use of and, to a certain degree, encouraging DIY activities. Overall though, DIY policing raises a number of delicate ethical questions. Whilst empowered citizens can be enabled to assist the public security effort, at the same time, they also can create great harm, when acting in irresponsibly.

1 Meijer, A. J. (2012). New media and the coproduction of safety: An empirical analysis of Dutch practices. The American Review of Public Administration, 0275074012455843.
2 Akkermans, M. & Vollaard, B. (2015). Effect van het WhatsApp-project in Tilburg op het aantal woninginbraken – een evaluatie. Tilburg University: thesis. Retrieved at 09-06-2016 via

Image: Film the Police by Lourenço Parente is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sebastian Denef

Fraunhofer IAO

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