Throughout modern history, the public has always had a role in solving crime

Typically, it is in the matter of providing testimony as a witness. Investigative detectives usually have a list of questions for those in the vicinity of the crime: “What did you see?” “What did you hear?” “When did it happen?”

And, whether crimes happened days ago or decades ago, law enforcement officials have regularly pleaded for members of the public to come forward with any details they may have on unsolved crimes. 

Crime Stoppers emerged in the 1970s to give the public a way to give anonymous tips to police. During the ‘80s, notices of missing children appeared on milk cartons in the hopes that the public would give police leads. And emergency alerts, including AMBER Alert, Clear Alert (in Texas) and Silver Alert, took over as the primary way to assist police in abduction cases starting in the ‘90s.

How citizen investigators become citizen detectives

However, in recent years, the role of the public in solving crimes has taken an interesting turn. 

Citizens are engaging in independent, comprehensive investigative research.

Some involve prison justice initiatives, including the Innocence Project and Georgetown University’s Prisons and Justice Initiative. In those cases, teams have been able to get wrongful convictions overturned because of their findings. 

And an increasing number of citizen detectives are aggressively assisting in investigations through their online research, piecing together details from dated police records, scouring social media and police records, crowdsourcing their findings with others, and, in some cases, eventually solving crimes or proving a convict’s innocence.

The most notable of the citizen investigative groups are WebSleuths, which helped police nab the killer of lottery winner Abraham Shakespeare; the Reddit Bureau of Investigation, Reddit’s Unresolved Mysteries; and the Doe Network, which claims responsibility for solving or helping police solve more than 100 cases since it formed in 1999.

Tricia Griffith, the owner of the WebSleuths site, said that law enforcement officials’ response to their group has been a mixed bag, according to an article published in the New Haven Register

“Cops think we’re like those crazy people talking to themselves who walk into a police station,” Griffith said. “But slowly police are realizing: ‘This crowd-sleuthing thing can work!’”

These latest types of citizen detectives were the inspiration of the book The Skeleton Crew, in which author Deborah Halber details their dedication to solving crimes.

John Walsh, host of the series America’s Most Wanted, described the book as a “behind-the-scenes look at the world of Internet sleuths who give names to the men and women who have died without identity. For the first time ever, readers are brought the real-life cases of missing persons, the unidentified dead, and the network of people that gives them their names…proving once again what I said at the conclusion of every episode of America’s Most Wanted: ‘One person can make a difference.’” 


Partnering with law enforcement to solve crimes

Whether they’re part of an online group or working alone, some citizen sleuths have been able to reveal details that lead to arrests. 

One remarkable case involved a New Yorker who helped police arrest and convict a child-killer in 2011. After hearing about a missing 8-year-old boy, Yaakov German walked throughout the neighborhood, asking local businesses if he could check their surveillance footage in an attempt to track down the last movements of Leiby Kletzy before he disappeared. 

It turned out that Leiby had taken another route on his way back home from school. German’s sleuthing helped New York Police Department investigators arrest Levi Aron. Parts of the victim’s remains were found in Aron’s freezer and a nearby dumpster.  

The efforts of citizen sleuths don’t always have heroic outcomes. One of the most publicized instances is that of Reddit sleuths who identified the wrong person as one of the two suspected Boston Marathon bombers. 

It turned out that Sunil Tripathi, who has been missing for more than a month, was dead at the time of the bombing. However, his body was only discovered after a photo of him had already spread across social media.


6 ways law enforcement officials can use your help

If you’re planning to join the growing multitude of citizen sleuths trying to help law enforcement officials solve crimes, here are 6 ways you can help.


  1. Check unsolved murder websitesMost states, major cities and metropolitan areas invite citizens to review unsolved murders by viewing websites that provide details on the victim and the circumstances of their death, including date. On the Philadelphia Unsolved Murders website, police commissioner Danielle Outlaw states, “We are committed to identifying the people who are responsible for taking another person’s life … We invite you to use Philly Unsolved Murders website as a place to learn various ways to submit information that may help resolve unsolved murders.”

    Information on that particular website also details the process for submitting a tip about an unsolved case, including the ability to submit a tip anonymously. It also says that any tips about a potential suspect should include “as much information as possible, including the person’s physical description, any tattoos, gang affiliations and known addresses where they may frequent.”


  1. Pay attention to missing persons alerts — As many people know, the first hours after a person’s abduction represent a critical period in investigators’ ability to catch the suspect and potentially rescue the victim before more harm is done. When you hear or see a missing person’s alert, immediately keep your eyes out for the details of the victim, the vehicle and any other pertinent information. If you see a car or victim, notify police. According to the AMBER Alert system, 1,074 children have been recovered through this emergency community activation plan.  


  1. Use your unique expertise or hobby — Sometimes law enforcement officials need the expertise of enthusiasts or hobbyists to bring clarification to clues in a case. That was the case with the investigation into the 2012 hit-and-run death of Betty Marcelle Wheeler. Virginia police asked car enthusiasts on the site Jalopnik to help them identify a piece of metal that fell from the vehicle during the fatal attack. It didn’t take long for the users to inform police that it belonged to an early 2000 model Ford F-150 pickup. Following up on that information and a tip from an anonymous source, police arrested two men in the case.Sites like let you turn your turn interest into advocacy. By combining publicly available information, with clear calls to action and an engaged community with access to training and resources you can use your skills—or try out new ones—to help contribute to solving unsolved cases.


  1. Forward all leads and tips to police — According to long-time citizen detective Todd Matthews, who was interviewed on the Castos podcast, said that the work that online detectives do is invaluable but it is critical that they direct any leads to police instead of publicly identifying suspects.Not only could they end up identifying the wrong person, they also could interfere with the detectives’ work. He said it’s important to forward all leads and tips to law enforcement officials, and to avoid calling the victim’s family.


  1. Submit video surveillance footage or register with police agencies — It’s no secret that we’re under surveillance, pretty much everywhere you go. Now, with many homes and small businesses equipped with security cameras, some police agencies are asking residents to register their cameras as part of a network to fight crime.The Roseville Police Department in northern California is among the law enforcement agencies that are inviting citizens to register their security cameras through a community-police relationship program called Keep Watch. According to Rob Baquera of the police department, the registry has “become a great crime prevention tool and crime solving tool.”

    Even if you live in an area that doesn’t have a similar program, footage from your surveillance videos at your home or business could be critical in helping to solve a case if you hear of a crime in your area. Contact the police if that is the case.


  1. Sign up for a neighborhood app — In addition to emergency alerts, you also can get quick updates about crimes in your neighborhood or city, which can represent another path to helping law enforcement officials solve crimes in your area. Nextdoor and Ring’s Neighbor apps are modern versions of a neighborhood watch, which dates back to the 1960’s, when people looked out for suspicious activity in their neighborhood and reported it to police.These apps can help you keep tabs on crimes that are committed in your neighborhood so that you can actively look out for suspicious activity that can be reported to the police.


How to forge a meaningful relationship

These are just a few of the ways that law enforcement officials can use the help of citizen detectives in detecting crimes and finding clues in unsolved cases.