Nov 18, 2011 Amanda Seef Uncategorized
Chalk up some of the latest crime tips to the last place many may think to see police — publicly, at least. Area departments are flocking to Facebook, Twitter and other interactive web measures to spread what’s going on in the community, reaching out to help solve crimes and hear what the residents are saying.
“We’re getting the information out to the public before the 6 o’clock news or before the newspaper is printed,” said Camillus Police Sgt. Joe Farella. “We can get the message out fast, and it’s nice if the word starts spreading.”
Camillus joins five other departments in Onondaga County on Facebook — Manlius, DeWitt, Syracuse, Cicero and the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office. The departments use the social network, and online interactivity, in varied ways.
“It’s different for each police department. Some of the uses are great, but some of their uses of Facebook are questionable and a little disturbing,” said Anthony Rotolo, professor of social media at the School of Information, Syracuse University.
The use of the pages is a way to keep the messages in the public’s conscious.
“”The residents probably feel a lot more connected to the police department,” Rotolo said. “What we’re not used to is our police department being present in our consciousness, especially if we’re not a victim of a crime or in need of protection. What they’re doing is beneficial.”
Most departments have been well established with email blasts, working with a crime alerts program, well before Facebook or other social networks have evolved into the police department’s strategy.
“I was very impressed when I first moved to Cicero, that our police department sent out a lot of information out through email,” Rotolo said. “Then I realized, I was being completely overloaded with emails. I would delete them without reading them because there was so much.”
Moving to Facebook for communication with residents is a natural move, Rotolo said.
“It’s a way to consume information and it’s more conducive to the way that we are already consuming,” he said. “It’s sort of an initial push of information. When we see the police department start to do a little more engagement, becoming a little more advanced, that’s a positive sign.”
In Camillus, the police department’s Facebook page grew as an extension of the town’s web site, which allows for interaction between the department and residents. The town uses a service called Nixle, which broadcasts alerts for local governments, businesses and agencies. Camillus is the only town in the area to use it.
The broadcast instantly posts to Facebook, Twitter and is sent out in an email blast, Farella said. Moving to other social networks as the media industry evolves is something the department is watching.
“If it catches on, we’re already there,” Farella said. “If something new comes along, we’ll try to get on that too. Whatever is most popular, we’ll stick with that.”
For DeWitt, Sgt. John Anton says the Facebook page allows instant communication.
“We’re big into technology, so we’re trying to use it in the department,” he said. “It seems like more and more people are on the go all the time. People can stay informed with what’s going on, and it’s a win-win for us, all the way around. The more information they have, the better they can stay informed with what’s going on in the town.”
“If we are looking for someone dangerous or there are potential witnesses to a crime, someone on Facebook is going to know those people,” Farella said. “Facebook has helped us get the information out there. We’ve had some real good tips that have lead to arrests.”
The purpose for the DeWitt Police Facebook page, Anton said, is to share the news of arrests or investigations with the community. On the page, a flurry of news outlet posts show the town’s nearly 500 fans what’s going on in the expansive town. The CAPS (crime alert program system) provides email blasts to residents and news outlets. Much of that information is put into news broadcasts and stories, that the department then shares on Facebook.
Many of the departments will post mugshots or arrest information on major cases, but one local police department exhibited “bad social media” behavior, Rotolo said. Utica Police’s Facebook page – with more than 13,000 fans – has a “controversial” page. The department posts mugshots of latest arrests, leaving the option for public comment on each arrest, including charges such as unlawful possession of marijuana, domestic disputes, patronizing prostitutes and petit larceny. Many of the charges the Utica Police Department has posted, traditional police departments would not release in a press release.
“The community started to develop,” Rotolo said. “People were coming to comment and enjoy the mugshots. They were cruel comments about appearance and look.”
Further than comments on the suspect’s appearance were comments presuming guilt by the defendants.
“There’s sort of a public trial taking place on Facebook prior to any real trial taking place in court,” he said.
The Camillus Police Department has been working to have a little fun with its readers, posting innocuous photos, seeking the community’s help in creating a caption. “Beat the Caption” is done each week on Friday by a part-time member of the force.
“We get a lot of people on there who are making their own captions,” Farella said. “We get to do something fun with the community.”
Being connected with the community in this manner is a benefit, Rotolo said.
“What Camillus is doing is a more beneficial approach,” he said. “It makes the police department part of their daily lives. Those who are tuned into and participating in the Camillus Facebook page, they probably feel a lot more connected to the police department.”
While there’s no formal laws or social media policies in place at the area police departments, a new communication method could open the door to a new liability, too, Rotolo said.
“There’s questions that have yet to be answered,” he said.
One of the biggest social media liabilities for law enforcement could be the potential reporting of a crime on the network. Should a resident report a crime or request help from the police and the call goes unanswered, that could be a liability for the department. As social media evolves, laws and rules concerning that should evolve as well.
Rotolo suggests all organizations set ground rules and include a disclaimer on the page. If the department, or business, is not expecting certain types of communication — such as requests for police help — on the page, then the department should make that explicitly clear.
“You have to be careful whenever you open a communication channel,” Rotolo said. “If the police department is intending to only have certain types of interactions on their Facebook page, then they should have that listed. They need to address that in a way that’s understood.”