Untapped potential? Area police test social media as crime-fighting tool
James Island resident Adam White has always been the type to call police if he sees something suspicious or has a tip that might prove helpful to investigators.
White, 31, is sure there are plenty of other civic-minded folks in the community just like him. But he worries that area police aren’t doing enough to harness that pool of potential help in an age where social media provides nearly instantaneous ways of getting word out about crimes and calamities.
White spends a fair amount of time on Twitter and Facebook as development director for a nonprofit that promotes children’s cancer research. He sees tremendous potential for police to use these services to post photos of wanted suspects, surveillance videos from crime scenes, updates on traffic accidents and other useful information.
Some area departments have established a presence on social media, and a few have become active participants. But a number of others have allowed their pages and profiles to lapse into disuse or have a taken a pass on the trend altogether.
“It’s a great way to get information out to the public, and I think they are just missing out on an opportunity here,” White said. “It gives one more opportunity for the public to be engaged with them.”
Thousands of law enforcement agencies around the country use social media to varying degrees. Some use it to mine information for investigations or enforcement, as Chicago police did recently when they used Twitter and Facebook to track illegally parked food trucks.
But others, from big city departments like the Baltimore police to suburban cop shops like the Dunwoody, Ga., police, use Twitter and Facebook extensively to provide real-time updates on homicides, armed robberies and other crimes.
“Some departments are more reluctant than others, but generally, once folks start using social media they see the value and benefits of it,” said Nancy Kolb, who oversees the International Association of Chiefs of Police Center for Social Media.
Testing the water
Several area police departments have dipped their toes in the water, but the results are mixed.
Mount Pleasant police have nearly 2,900 followers on Twitter and use the account to update the public on road closures, wrecks and crime-prevention tips.
Sgt. Chip Googe started the Twitter feed two years ago and now manages tweets with another officer. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Motorists, in particular, appreciate a heads-up about potential delays that affect their commute, he said.
“For us, it’s more about bridging the gap in communication, so citizens don’t see police as faceless and authoritarian,” he said. “We are someone you can interact with.”
Charleston police maintain Facebook pages that highlight department news, crimes that need solving and tips for protecting children against Internet crimes.
Doug Galluccio, an Internet crimes investigator who maintains the pages, said he is looking for ways to expand the content, make the pages more inviting and attract more followers. The main page had 189 followers last week, while the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force page had 391. But Galluccio has no doubt that it’s worth the time.
“It’s the way everyone is going,” he said. “There are 900 million users on Facebook alone. Everybody is using social media.”
Still, a number of other departments have little or no presence at all on these sites. Some, like Summerville police, see value in joining the trend, but don’t have anyone to monitor the sites and post information.
Summerville Police Capt. Jon Rogers said the department doesn’t want to see tips go ignored because police aren’t monitoring a social media account around the clock. “It’s a great tool,” he said. “Unfortunately, we just don’t have the manpower to keep up with it.”
North Charleston police have run into that problem. The department has 2,200 followers on Twitter, but only nine tweets and no updates since August. The department’s Facebook page is even more barren, leading one of the 70 followers to suggest adding some “real information.”
Spencer Pryor, the department’s public information officer, kept up the department’s presence on the two sites but found those efforts didn’t yield much response from the public. “We really didn’t get much of anything from that,” he said.
Police get a lot more tips through personal interactions and the department’s conventional website, and area news outlets do a good job of informing the public of breaking news in a timely fashion, Pryor said.
Around the country, however, police have credited social media with helping them crack some serious crimes. In February, for example, Philadelphia police reportedly arrested a suspect in the kidnapping and sexual assault of a 6-year-old girl just 16 minutes after tweeting and posting his photo on Facebook.
Some police departments remain cautious about the technology, as stories also abound of officers being disciplined for making inappropriate posts. Commanders certainly don’t want officers cracking on their city council for budget cuts or dusting it up with citizens who are critical of the department.
But Capt. Nelson Brown of the Georgetown Police Department is firm believer in taking the leap. He posts roadwork updates, crime-scene video, wanted posters and more on the department’s Facebook page alongside features on a puppy rescue, job openings and profiles about local officers. It’s a good promotion for the department and it has solved crimes, he said.
In March, surveillance video captured three young men trashing a wreath laid on a memorial for Spencer Guerry, an assistant police chief who was fatally shot in the line of duty in 1994. Brown posted still captures from the video on Facebook and a tip soon led police straight to the culprits, he said.
Brown said he can update the page from his office or on the go, and it takes him less time than he used to spend preparing press releases and calling contacts.
“You get information in and you put it right out,” he said. “It’s about working smarter, not harder.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.