For law enforcement across the Lowcountry, social media has become a vital tool in 21st century crime fighting.
The vast majority of area agencies are on Facebook and Twitter, at the very least, and have been for years. A social media presence allows for stronger relationships between departments and the communities they serve and is also an invaluable investigative tool, according to local officials.
“It humanizes departments,” said Charleston County sheriff’s Maj. Eric Watson. “In my opinion, it makes our department more personable with the community.”
He said the Sheriff’s Office began dabbling in social media about four years ago and now uses it all day, every day. He manages accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Periscope. Each platform, Watson said, reaches a different audience.
The department posts anything from road closures and fatal crashes to law enforcement events and pictures of individuals wanted for crimes to try to drum up tips. The investigative unit at the Sheriff’s Office also uses social media to gather intelligence about cases.
“We have close to 5,000 people on our Facebook, so you can get that information out to potentially 5,000 people,” Watson said. “It gets shared and the suspect sees his face floating around — we’re more than likely going to get a hit.”
And it isn’t just helpful in catching suspects. In late August, an individual from another country reached out through the Sheriff’s Office website to express concern about a friend on social media who posted suicidal thoughts.
From there, deputies communicated with the individual through social media to identify the suicidal teen, who lives in Charleston County. When deputies located her, she confirmed she had made comments on social media that she didn’t want to live and said she was bullied in school because of her looks, according to the incident report. The teen ultimately agreed to seek professional help after talking with deputies.
“We were able to get her the help she needed,” Watson said. “That is the power of social media and clear evidence on how many people it reaches around the world. When social media is used for the right reasons, you will always have positive results, even when the world around you seems like a dark and lonely place.”
Of course, not everyone uses social media for good, but Charleston Police Detective Doug Galluccio said departments “have to take the good with the bad.”
“The only downfall is monitoring the derogatory things people post,” he said.
Watson agreed but said he makes sure to respond to every complaint made online and also interacts with individuals who ask questions or make comments warranting a response.
“It’s very important because if you don’t use it, they’ll stop using it,” he added.
The Charleston Police Department has multiple Facebook pages, a Twitter, Instagram and YouTube account. Spokesman Charles Francis said social media is just another avenue to get accurate information to the public quickly and to promote the department in a positive way.
“People love it,” he said.
Posts in particular that garner a lot of “likes” or comments involve Tyreik Gadsden, the 5-year-old who was paralyzed by a gunshot outside his grandmother’s house on Charleston’s East Side, according to Francis. He recently visited with the Police Department for a welcome home party and a video of the event on Facebook was viewed more than 4,000 times.
“(Social media) let’s us put out the positive things about us,” Galluccio said. “That gets shared and that’s the great thing.”
One of the first agencies in the area to start using social media is the Mount Pleasant Police Department, and its online presence has grown significantly over the years. The department has the seventh-highest number of Twitter followers in the nation among agencies its size, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police Center for Social Media.
Inspector Chip Googe credits a chance encounter with a community member at a wreck five years ago for the push to go online. While responding to the wreck, Googe said he saw the individual “fussing with his phone,” and asked what he was doing.
“I didn’t know much about social media at the time,” he said. “We started talking about Twitter and he put information out about the wreck, so I kind of took that info and ran with that.”
The department now has more than 13,000 followers on Twitter, one of the more active platforms online, Googe said. The department also uses Facebook, Instagram, Vine, YouTube, Periscope and an app called Nextdoor, a social network for neighborhood communities.
Like other departments, Googe said Mount Pleasant uses the online platforms to promote itself and events and to get important information to the public promptly. It’s completely replaced an “antiquated” reverse 911 system, Googe said. Reverse 911 is when agencies notify residents of potential emergencies, such as school lockdowns or significant weather events.
“I think (social media has) made community relations stronger because they know we’re trying to be transparent,” Googe said. “They know they have access to us.”
He handles a lot of the posts, but there are six other officers who help with Twitter and two who help with Facebook. Googe said social media done right is just about a full-time job’s worth of work.
“It is something that if you want to be successful at it, you can’t just do it part time,” he said.
It would be too much for one person, but Googe said it’s important for departments to trust officers enough to spread out the responsibility and create policy.
Googe and Watson encouraged all law enforcement to consider going online.
“If you aren’t online, you can miss a lot of vital information about what’s going on in the community,” Watson warned. “It’s going to be a norm; social media is here to stay, either you accept it or you don’t, but we can’t be afraid to use it.”
Reach Melissa Boughton at 937-5594 or at Twitter.com/mboughtonPC.