Vancouver police say they cannot keep up with the unprecedented number of tips and photos of people who allegedly torched cars, looted businesses and pounded on officers in a riot following the Canucks loss to Boston in the Stanley Cup finals.
Just five days after the June 15 riot that plunged the Canadian city into three hours of chaos, police had received 3,500 e-mails that included 53 videos, 708 photographs and 1,011 hyperlinks to social media sites such as Facebook.
Now they have warned outraged residents to avoid using social media to exact vigilante justice. Authorities "are asking the public to resist the temptation to take justice into their own hands," the police said in a statement.
Police use of social media is exploding, and the Vancouver riot illustrates both unique opportunities and challenges for investigators.
"Law enforcement has to go where the people are, and the fact is, the people are online," said Todd Shipley, a former Reno police detective who heads Vere, a company that creates software to help police manage online investigations. "The crime scene has expanded. It's no longer just the physical world, but it's that Internet cloud. There's actionable information out there."
In Vancouver, websites and Facebook pages aimed at identifying alleged rioters have proliferated as outraged residents hope public shaming prompts rioters to surrender to police.
"This is the first major incident where social media has been so prevalent," said Constable Lindsey Houghton, a police spokesman.
Robert Gorcak, an online marketer who lives in downtown Vancouver, created a Facebook page called Vancouver Riot Pics that has attracted more than 100,000 fans. More than 100 people have been "tagged" or identified, he said.
"It was a spur-of-the-moment thing for people to post their pictures and for people to tag the rioters who were causing the destruction," he said. "I was absolutely disgusted by what had happened and I thought it would be useful for police."
Vancouver Sgt. Dale Weidman called the volume and speed of incoming information "overwhelming."
In a routine case, a crime is committed and investigators seek to identify the suspect, he said. "In these cases, we have names of suspects before we know exactly what they did and where they did it," forcing investigators to work backward, Weidman said.
Alexandra Samuel, director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University in Vancouver, praised the police department's handling of social media evidence. But she said she was alarmed by residents "who have taken it into their own hands to crowd source."
What started as people wanting to do something constructive evolved into a call to "round these people up," she said.
"Their level of hostility, aggressiveness and mob mentality -- it's a mob, " Samuel said. "It's just unfolding online."