Facta, non verba

The country’s news media are in a froth over the lurid, gory details of a bizarre murder case, certainly one of the most sensational in recent times. Luka Rocco Magnotta (a.k.a. Eric Clinton Newman), a 29-year old man from Scarborough, has apparently killed and dismembered 33-year-old Lin Jun, of Wuhan, China. Magnotta is alleged to have stabbed Jun with an ice pick, mutilated and sexually assaulted the cadaver, and then mailed bits of it to the headquarters of the federal Conservative and Liberal parties. Somehow a video of the murder and desecration ended up on a website specialising in “gore”; the site is owned by an Edmonton man, Mark Marek, but its servers are based in the United States.

I won’t bore you, dear readers, with a recitation of the litany one can find all over the internet and television; but in the churning torrents of spilled ink arrive a few tantalising bits of data that beg for elaboration.

The first is the tale of an American lawyer who claims to have seen the snuff video, notified both US and Canadian police about its contents, and been rebuffed. The lawyer was so affected by having seen the video that he attempted to contact every jurisdiction where Magnotta’s social media profiles indicated he had been, and Toronto was one such location. Our local police dispute the lawyer’s account of his efforts to notify them, and believe they acted appropriately based on the information they had at the time.

“Knowing what we do know now, perhaps we could have done more,” said [Kevin] Masterman. “But at the time, knowing what we knew then, we were satisfied with the response of the call taker.” […]

“He was trying to let us know about the video,” conceded Masterman, a Toronto police media and communications co-ordinator, who said Renville’s call came in at 10:30 p.m. Sunday.

But Masterman insisted “the call was quite vague at the time.” A police switchboard operator spoke to Renville, recorded the call, and referred Renville to Crimestoppers, but did not transfer him to a police officer, said Masterman. He added police would not release any recording of the conversation.

[…]

Renville called Miami police (Magnotta appears in online photos in Miami), Denver FBI and police (Magnotta was believed to be a former roommate of a convicted prostitute killer in that city) and the national FBI crime and terrorism tip lines and got either no response, or bewildered responses. He admits it must have sounded like a “crazy report.”

He called Toronto police Sunday and says a woman took the call and transferred him to a man whom he understood to be an officer. “He suggested the video I saw must be a fake, it must be good special effects. It just didn’t make any sense for a fellow to videotape himself committing his crime, then load it on the Internet,” said Renville.

“I asked him to give me an email address to which I could send a link to the video and he said ‘no,’ they wouldn’t be needing a link to the video.”

Masterman denied Renville asked for an email address or offered to send the video link via email, suggesting Renville had spoken to so many others that he may be “confused” about details of his interaction with a Metro Toronto Police Services switchboard operator.

Masterman said Toronto police communications officials are “satisfied” with how the incident was handled, adding “in hindsight, there could have been other options, but knowing what they did at the time they’re satisfied with the response.”

– MacCharles, Tonda. “Luka Magnotta: Toronto police admit they “could have done more” when U.S. lawyer flagged disturbing video.” Toronto Star, 31 May 2012.

Optimistically, it may have been a missed opportunity; but apparently Mr. Renville did not express himself eloquently enough (nor provide enough probable cause) for the police to begin to connect the dots. It would not, in any event, have changed the outcome for the unfortunate victim, Lin Jun. But the really fascinating admission from police comes in the latter half of the Star article; and it’s interesting not because it relates specifically to this case, but to the future of policing and how the public interacts with them.

“We prefer that people call us. We don’t want to receive reports of crime over the Internet. We want to respond to reports right away. We don’t want the Internet as an alternate (sic) to 911.”

Masterman said the police service’s Facebook page is not monitored 24 hours a day seven days a week, and so if people try to report a crime in progress, “there’s no one there to talk to you right away.”

Renville says he also spoke to a receptionist at the Toronto Sun and emailed a Globe and Mail reporter, again to no avail.

“Frustrated, discouraged and distressed” by his inability to get it “on the radar of people who could do something about it,” Renville says he gave up Monday evening at his wife’s insistence, after three days.

– MacCharles, Tonda. “Luka Magnotta: Toronto police admit they “could have done more” when U.S. lawyer flagged disturbing video.” Toronto Star, 31 May 2012. [Emphasis mine]

The bolded part of the quotation is revealing, and not in a good way; it is nonsensical. Toronto police didn’t receive notification of the murder over the Internet, they received it via a good old-fashioned telephone call—which is, according to spokesman Masterman, their preferred avenue. Moreover, Mr. Masterman was being intentionally obtuse or disingenuous in his characterisation; Mr. Renville was not attempting to use the Internet as an alternate to 911. He was attempting to direct the police’s attention to the electronic record of a violent crime, not summon emergency services to intervene and save the victim’s life in the nick of time. Call me dense, but I think the police would be upset if you used 911 as your personal conduit for relaying evidence. Everything our emergency services have ever told us indicates that they’d like 911 to be reserved for cases where they might usefully respond to a real and present crisis, not an after-the-fact examination and dissection of evidence. This is exactly why the police fobbed off Mr. Renville on Crime Stoppers instead of 911; because they recognised that there was no emergency within their jurisdiction to be dispatched to.

The broader problem is that this particular case—featuring internet-based evidence of a violent crime—did not add up to something that smelled like probable cause, and that lack of cause suffocated any desire to spring into even modest investigative action. I understand the police’s attitude on this, and halfway agree that procuring good Net-derived evidence as the basis of probable cause can be fraught with frustration, delay and complication. Sifting through server and network activity logs, then coordinating your investigation with ISPs and IT staff at a dozen other nodes spread out across the country (and all its time zones) can be a giant pain in the ass. Add another layer of complexity if you have to deal with a foreign jurisdiction, its law enforcement entities and their dissimilar statutes and legal requirements. Add to that another significant hurdle; most law enforcement officers (and an overwhelming majority of their superiors) are not even remotely computer-savvy, so even a relatively modest challenge can appear to be as daunting as scaling Everest or K2.

But it’s a cold, hard fact that an increasing amount of our communication, commerce, productivity and entertainment takes place in the electronic ether—and that, dear friends in blue, will mean an increasing variety and volume of crimes whose evidence will have to be sourced from the net.

Now Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and a million other social media sites might exist as long as IBM, or they might fold up shop and cease to exist within a decade. But what is inarguable is that the basic concept of social media (i.e. interacting with a global audience in near-real-time on the net) is here to stay; and net-connected mobile computing on small handheld platforms doesn’t seem like it is likely to vanish anytime soon, either. One cannot help but ask whether the police ought to be taking a head-in-the-sand approach to social media; surely adapting with the times is a strategy more likely to pay dividends.

I understand the reliance on tried-and-true infrastructure like telephones. They’re highly regulated, generally tied to a single individual (or at least a discrete physical location), and our emergency services infrastructure is designed to take advantage of this. If the call is from a traditional land line, the address/location of the caller will appear to 911 dispatchers, whether or not the caller volunteers that information. This gives first responders a certain degree of confidence that they are headed to the right vicinity where an apparent emergency is underway, and if the call is false or spurious, it can also be billed or fined accordingly. But even this has changed, and phone lines are certainly not immune to spoofing; an enterprising gadfly with modest telecom knowledge, access to a VOIP service and proxies can impersonate another telephone number without significant difficulty. This is why we now have the phenomenon of SWATting; making a spurious call to police that results in the dispatch of a tactical team to a residence whose innocent occupants pose no risk to public safety, and are unaware that their domicile has been reported as the scene of a violent crime. This potentially life-threatening prank has already occurred in Toronto and Langley, BC. Phones are not the be-all and end-all of citizen contact with police.

It seems to me that as the volume and variety of our net-based activity increases, the need for police to be able to conduct meaningful interaction (incident reporting, patrols, investigation and evidence collection) there will also increase. If I were a chief of police or senior superintendent, I would start to plan for that eventuality now—instead of trying to force the public back into the comfortable old way of doing things. Believe me when I say I am a curmudgeon and skeptic of every hare-brained “the internet will make life magic” scheme. It won’t. But in the developed world, the internet is to the 21st century as the telephone was to the 20th—essential, integral; woven into the fabric of daily life. Maybe it’s time that our police learned how to use it.

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