Story by: Dayne Marae
Three out of every four domestic violence cases in St. Joseph County were considered high risk in the first half of 2018.
That means those cases had multiple indicators the situation could escalate to murder.
The Internet can help and hurt the victim, as well as the suspect.
Chances are your cell phone is in reaching distance of you right now. You use it for information, communication and entertainment.
You likely never leave home without it.
As helpful as your phone may be, it also tells your story — one that can just as easily be used against you in a court of law.
We can all find the value in the internet. The speed in which we gain information is constantly accelerating. It connects us almost instantly and can keep us entertained for hours.
But there are downsides to this digital age.
“Social media can certainly be an aggravating factor when you are dealing with certain crimes,” said Detective Sean Killian, South Bend Police Department SVU unit.
Killian is a Detective with the South Bend Police Department’s Special Victims Units.
He’s seen some of the most heinous crimes that happen because of domestic abuse.
“They are crimes that affect people not only for days but can affect people for lives,” said Killian. “They can affect total generations.”
“It’s important that we know that a lot of the domestic violence happening here has a really high risk for there to be fatalities,” said Megan Elbin, St. Joseph County Family Justice Center Frontline Advocate.
Elbin is a Frontline Advocate at the Family Justice Center of St. Joseph County and has worked alongside investigators to help victims. One reoccurring concern she sees is social media being used against her clients.
“A lot of times we see abusive people using social media, using technology as a way to continue holding that power and control over someone,” said Elbin.
Elbin says social media is so easy to abuse. She has seen suspects hack into victim’s accounts or harass them anonymously.
Her goal is to help survivors, so she sets aside specific time to teach her clients how to enable features to keep their online profiles as private as possible.
“I have clients that I will schedule an appointment, just to sit down with them and go through their phone, and see what apps are you sharing your location with,” said Elbin. “When you are posting on Instagram, is it posting where you are? On your Snapchat, is it automatically sharing your location with everyone you’re friends with?”
Taking the steps to keep your online life confidential is helpful, but sometimes that’s not enough, especially when the suspects go to great lengths to hide their identity.
“I have so many clients that say, ‘I know this is my ex, I know this because I can tell by the way he talks,’” said Elbin. “But when they bring that in to court, a judge is going to say ‘I don’t have enough proof. There’s not enough proof there to say that for sure.’”
Technology is developing so fast laws can’t keep up…but that same screen that suspects use to hide their identity is the same screen that can be used against them.
“Essentially, anything that is ever on the screen or computer or cell phone, we have the capability to retrieve that information,” said Mitch Kajzer.
Kajzer does a lot of digital digging for the St. Joseph County Cyber Crimes Unit when it comes to domestic situations.
“We’ll look for communications, what type of communications does the victim or suspect have with third parties that may play into it,” said Kajzer. “We look for photos, we look for internet histories, such as what a suspect is searching for online.”
He says the intel sealed inside these devices tells a story.
Even if there isn’t a name attached to the threats and harassment, if there’s enough evidence to seize a cell phone, Kajzer wants suspects to know your online footprint will hold you accountable.
“Private browsing and stuff like that, it really doesn’t work,” said Kajzer. “Our forensics capabilities exceeds that.”
Despite the potential dangers on the internet, Killian says it’s also a place where victims can find hope.
“Lot of times social media or the internet or resources online may be the only way to get information about how to get out of a certain situation,” said Killian. “If you don’t have any other option, it may be a great way to reach out to somebody.”