Police Launch Social Media Initiative to Identify London Rioters

By Carlton Purvis

After being accused by both local officials and the public of a mild and unprepared response to riots, the London Metropolitan Police (MET) have launched a social media initiative to identify and arrest rioters and looters wreaking havoc as far north as Enfield and as far south as Croydon.

Called Operation Withern, the initiative is intended to help police "bring to justice those who have committed violent and criminal acts,” according to a release from the MET. Using London’s extensive CCTV network, the MET is capturing images of rioters and posting their photos online with an appeal for the public to identify the suspects.

“Those who have [committed] or intend to go out and commit violent, criminal acts should be warned. We will have photographs and evidence that we will use to identify you and bring you to justice,” Commander Simon Foy said in the release.

Early this morning, MET released its first round of photos along with descriptions of the subjects. The photos are posted by neighborhood on both the MET Web site and Flickr. They are also providing regular updates on arrests and photos to their twitter account. The initial 15 photos released were captured Monday night and early Tuesday morning.

The images, from the West Norwood and Croydon areas, show crowds of people, many in hoodies, with their faces covered. For the ones who chose not to cover their faces, their pictures were cropped from the photos and added to the MET’s online photo lineup.

Although the MET press release makes no mention of using Facebook to identify people in images, in theory, Facebook’s new facial recognition technology could help the effort. The feature checks faces in photos against faces of people on a user’s contacts list to identify people in a photo. There are indications that individuals are already doing that themselves, however. 

Andy Willetts
used Twitter and Facebook to identify one looter and then posted the man's social media information online and sent it to the MET via Twitter. Facebook has in the past been willing to work with law enforcement on select issues.

Operation Withern includes officers from the Homicide and Serious Crime Command, special investigators from the Public Order Branch, as well as police support staff. Police say it will be a “long term” operation.

The riots erupted after a peaceful protest against an earlier police shooting of an alleged drug dealer, Mark Duggan, in Tottenham turned violent. The Independent Police Complaints Commission announced this morning that there is no evidence that Mark Duggan had shot at police officers before he was shot dead, according to ballistic test results.

“There’s always tension [between Tottenham residents] and police and someone has now pulled back the curtain, and we can see what’s under the surface,” a law enforcement official told Sky News on Sunday.

Five-hundred and sixty three people have already been arrested for rioting in the past three days, according to the MET Web site.

The Daily Mail created a gallery of its own here. And Google Maps has created a special edition map showing the locations of riot activity and providing real-time updates.

photo provided to media by the London Metropolitan Police


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