Philly’s ‘Twitter Justice League’ aid hunt for group who beat up gay couple

 The suspects were described as white, in their early 20s, clean cut and well dressed. (Image courtesy of Philadelphia Police)

The suspects were described as white, in their early 20s, clean cut and well dressed. (Image courtesy of Philadelphia Police)

This is a story about the Philly Internet using its powers for good. 

Yesterday, city police released a video they say shows the group of suspects in last week’s assault on a gay couple in Center City. The video shows a group of men and women strolling down Chancellor Street, shortly before the couple say they were attacked by a group shouting homophobic slurs.

Although no arrests had been made as of about 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, social media sleuthing appears to be helping Philadelphia police rapidly close in on the suspects.

Almost immediately after the video was released,  Twitter users swung into action.

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It began with a Tweet from user @greggybennett, who posted a photo of a group of people smiling at a then-unidentified restaurant. Several of the people in the photo appeared to be wearing the same clothing as people in the video. At the same time, Twitter user @FanSince09 was rallying his 8,500-plus Twitter followers, figuring someone in the city had to know who the suspects were. 

Within minutes, the restaurant was identified as La Viola West.

Using Facebook’s social search graph, @FanSince09 said he figured out who’d checked in at the restaurant on the social media platform on the night of the attack. From there, he ― and police, including social-media savvy Det. Joseph Murray and Sgt. Eric Gripp ― were able to identify user profiles that matched the photos of the alleged suspects.

“Within the hour I started getting tips direct messaged to me. After that another picture went out of a party at a restaurant, and you know, within an hour of that, the case was basically closed,” FanSince09 told WHYY’s Joe Hernandez this morning. (He tweets during work, so he keeps his identity a secret.)

“I am fortunate enough to know Det. Joe Murray, who is very active on Twitter, so he and I have a good relationship, so I started direct messaging him almost right away, saying hey I’m going to pass stuff on to you,” he said.

As of this morning, no arrests have been announced, and guilt obviously can’t be determined from Tweets alone. But Murray said detectives are working the case and has acknowledged Twitter’s role in the investigation:

This is how Twitter is supposed to work for cops. I will take a couple thousand Twitter detectives over any one real detective any day.

— Joseph Murray (@PPDJoeMurray) September 17, 2014

 As events unfolded on social media, our colleague Melody Kramer at NPR put together this Storify that explains how it all developed.

Already, though, Tuesday night’s turn of events is proving to be a case study in the power of the Internet crowd and why law enforcement efforts to use social media as both investigative and community relations tool can pay off. For decades, police have sought the public’s help in solving crimes by releasing information about suspects through the media. What happened Tuesday night was that process laid bare, through social media.

Let’s be clear here. No arrests made. Central Detectives have done a ton of work and have a lot more to do. (Not a law & order episode)

— Joseph Murray (@PPDJoeMurray) September 17, 2014

6ABC is reporting that lawyers for some of the people in the video have been in contact with police and are making arrangements to bring suspects in for questioning today.

FanSince09 said it’s both a case where our public social media lives, all those restaurant checkins and selfies, can potentially come back to haunt us. But it’s also a sign that Philadelphia is ready to take a stand against hate crimes.  “I really do appreciate all the Twitter Justice League, you guys are Brian Dawkins-level inspiration,” he said.

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