While Facebook may no longer be the most relevant social media platform, with young users quitting it in droves, it has become more and more important in the work of law enforcement. For one detective in Delray Beach, Florida—part of the “rehab capital of America” and a major hub of the opioid epidemic—Facebook has been essential in the fight against corrupt operators in the area’s drug rehabilitation industry.
Detective Nicole Lucas credits her Facebook page, which prompts people to share information about negative experiences at rehab centers and sober homes, for more than 30 arrests since she launched it in June 2016. “I don’t think it’s ever been done before—not with this success rate,” she says.
Lucas created the page—using her first and last name, not an alias—when she learned she would be joining State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s Sober Homes Task Force, which aims to reform the area’s sober home industry by shutting down illegitimate operators and protecting individuals in recovery. (A sober home is where an individual lives after leaving rehab. Residents are meant to support one another while continuing their recovery and being monitored for drug use.) Because sober homes are largely unregulated, misconduct—including drug use, fatal overdoses, and patient brokering—runs rampant.
“Social media is the best way to contact the most people in the shortest amount of time,” Lucas says about creating the page. She announced on it, in June 2016, that she was seeking patients’ firsthand accounts of abuse as well as secondhand intel, such as from patients’ family members or sponsors. Lucas promised confidentiality to all who came forward.
“I wasn’t sure how it would be received, and if the population I was trying to connect with would accept me or not,” she recalls. The page took time to gain momentum, but it took off within three months. “I could have had an assistant whose whole job was managing this page because I would get messages day and night," she says. "It was out of control. I had to write dozens of reports with Facebook tips. It’s like a modern-day Crime Stoppers line.”
Today, she has more than 2,000 Facebook friends, and she says that almost every bit of intel she's received has been helpful for aiding existing cases or prompting new investigations. One of those existing cases was an investigation of Kenneth Chatman, a drug-treatment provider in South Florida who was arrested in December 2016 and subsequently sentenced to 27 and a half years in prison in 2017 for insurance fraud.
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Through connections made with her page, Lucas had a person recovering from addiction in one of the centers give a sworn statement that Chatman paid him in heroin to live in one of his sober homes and collect money from visitors who sexually assaulted female residents who were drugged and held against their will.
Although the informant was afraid of reprisal from Chatman, Lucas believes he might have come forward with the info because the anonymous nature of Facebook. (She says some people create new or fake profiles to make contact with her.) This holds true for most of the individuals she hopes to reach because, since many have had negative experiences with law enforcement due to their drug use, they prefer making contact online rather than in person.
Over time, members of the tight-knit rehab community began to see her as a trusted advocate, Lucas says. “I don’t know if you could find an addict in this area that doesn’t know who I am or my Facebook page,” she says. “It worked out better than I could have expected because people I would have never known about were able to find me.”
She says the page has been vital in the success of the task force and urges other city police departments to use the platform, too. On the county and state levels, many law enforcement agencies nationwide currently have personnel in various departments who focus on reconnaissance and information-gathering online, says Sameer Hinduja, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. “Law enforcement has to use all tools and resources at their disposal to investigate and solve crimes, particularly when it seems sometimes that the ‘bad guys’ may be one step ahead—especially via the use of new communications technologies,” he says. Regarding the ethics of using social media to get tips, Hinduja says it's not much different from having a tip line in a community or school. Lucas adds that the people who offer tips are "legally protected as witnesses or victims." Also, they're not necessarily sharing the actual information on FB messenger—they might be talking on the phone or meeting up in person after that first contact.
When asked to comment on Lucas’s use of Facebook in her detective work, a spokesperson for Facebook replied: “We routinely respond to valid law enforcement requests and outline how officials may submit a request on our site.” Last fall, Lucas left the task force for a new assignment. At her suggestion, her replacement created a Facebook page of his own, and she now sends him leads from her page, which is still active. Even though she has moved on, Lucas says she remains appreciative of the people who used her page.
“I got to see into a world that most people are completely outside of,” she says. “It’s probably easier for most people [to turn a blind eye] because there’s a lot of bad stuff in recovery—but there’s also a lot of great stuff. People have fought and overcome so many demons and battles that most people will never have to face or understand."
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