Chatter on Web sites. Comments flung in presumed anonymity through cyberspace. Blogs that blend threads of truth with blankets of opinion and speculation.
Oftentimes, public input on the news of crimes and courts is merely reaction, or a discourse for stories of wrongdoing in a community.
But occasionally an Internet commenter - such as the online tipster who may be a new witness in the Jason Rose murder and arson trial - can hand police and courtroom counsel valuable information they may have missed otherwise.
"No investigation can reach out to everybody," said Lawrence police Capt. Dan Affalter, who heads the police detective unit. "We gather information, wherever it is. If that's the only way I can get it, I'll take it."
As more people gather in cyberspace to swap information and ideas, police and other investigative agencies look to the Web for information not found elsewhere, or buried in files or phone books miles away.
"There's just a myriad of information out there," said Jerry Wolfskill, director of the Police Academy at Johnson County Community College.
"The Internet has opened up a million different things. It's a tremendous tool."
Tracking a witness
On Feb. 9, police noticed a comment on an LJWorld.com message board offering information about Rose, the man charged with murder and arson in connection with the October 2005 fire at the Boardwalk Apartments.
The information seemed reliable, so police investigated the claim, even as Rose's trial entered the fourth day of testimony.
Within hours, police had learned the identity of the commenter, and by Feb. 12, District Attorney Charles Branson had asked District Judge Jack Murphy to allow the witness.
The judge ruled that the new witness' testimony should be heard. But out of fairness to the defense, the judge called a mistrial and set a new trial date for April 30.
Branson said he was impressed by law enforcement efforts to track down the new witness - something that wouldn't have occurred without the Internet.
Affalter said he couldn't comment on the Rose case specifically, but said that for detectives, tips on crimes don't always happen the way he would prefer: face to face.
The county tips hot line can be a resource, Affalter said, but it has its limitations. For example, if someone calls with information that can't be verified or doesn't match up to the story so far, police often can't use it.
Plus, he said, if an anonymous tipster calls with very specific information no one else has, it's almost always unusable unless the person comes forward. The phone lines aren't monitored, and those lines don't use caller ID, he said.
But tips on Internet chatboards or blogs are different, Affalter said. Those types of communication - whether messages on a chat board or e-mail - can be traced back to users through the servers that companies and chat sites use to collect information.
"I guess a lot of simple users like me think that their Internet communications are private," he said. "But they're never totally private."
Already a tool
Although looking toward the Web for leads will become a larger part of police work as the Internet grows, it already plays a critical role in solving some crimes, said John Green, associate director at the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center.
For example, child predator investigations focus almost entirely on the Internet in many Kansas jurisdictions.
In Wichita, the Internet Crimes Against Children task force uses the Internet to learn the names and identities of people who hang out in chat rooms instead of on street corners.
"There's a big computer awareness out there," Green said. "For child crimes, it's already there."
Green said the fact that Lawrence police found a tipster for a major crime such as the Boardwalk Apartments fire online didn't surprise him. It's just good police work, he said.
And, he added, "We're just beginning."