Police Use Facebook to Fight Crime, Talk to Residents

By Sara Inés Calderón Comment

Police departments around the United States have begun to incorporate Facebook into their policing efforts, using the network to serve a variety of needs. Pages created to find missing persons have rendered useful information and tips on police pages or the pages of criminal elements have led to arrests.

As we previously reported, there are many ways for a municipal entity to help their constituencies on Facebook, such as posting events and providing useful information in an accessible way. A few police departments we spoke to said that they use Facebook to serve very specific needs online, and in doing so, are able to complement the work they’re doing in the real world.

Most departments had a similar format for their pages: the Walls had press release-type information, the photos consisted of suspect mug shots and officers involved in community events, and either the notes or blog tabs included additional information.

Greenfield, Indiana’s police page has 676 fans and posts lots of press releases, photos of police in the community, links to other police agencies in the state and also posts surveillance footage asking the public to help identify the people in the videos.

Police in Salinas, California recently posted a lot of information about a deceased police officer, but also posted about downed power lines, solicited tips and reminded people to sign up for text message emergency notifications. The page has 914 fans.

Shelby, Ohio’s Police Department Facebook page has 1,150 Facebook fans and a population 9,300; it appears a significant portion of the residents are fans. The result is a really community-oriented page where locals ask questions about problems with their neighbors or power company employees and the police department answers them.

This department takes the idea of a Facebook conversation to the next level by really engaging in tit-for-tat exchanges. A good example is a discussion about a new police facility that began on January 7 and has 31 posts to date in which practically every comment made by a resident garnered a response from the page’s admin.

It’s interesting to note that a few of the big police departments we looked at, Dallas with 2,800 fans and Chicago with 7,900, had pages that were active with status updates. But because the content was all generalized and the comments were disabled, they seemed just as impersonal as the police’s web sites.

Smaller departments, on the other hand, seemed to create pages more in-touch with their residents for providing very specific and useful information, such as weather warnings or school closure notices.

The Alachua County Sheriff’s Department in Gainesville, Florida set up a Facebook page last spring after informal surveys at the University of Florida showed that, while many of the 80,000 students there may not watch the local news or read the local paper, almost all were on Facebook, said Public Information Office Stephen Maynard; the page currently has 514 fans.

Law enforcement needs to be able to disseminate information and for the Alachua Sheriff’s Department that meant going to Facebook, he tells us, noting that other social networks like Twitter and YouTube were also popular but Facebook was “the big one.” The idea here wasn’t to create a dialogue, so as to avoid negative or obscene feedback Maynard said, but rather to be able to broadcast information, one-way, to the public.

The Massillon Police Department in Ohio took a different approach to their Facebook page when they launched three weeks ago, currently with 1,675 fans. With a population of 32,600 as per the Census Bureau, Massillon’s Police Department created a much more conversational page by consistently engaging local people on a local level, giving them information about weather advisories, school closures, people with warrants out for their arrest and lots of other local content.

But, said officer and page administrator Brian Muntean, that’s the point.

“I thought that would be a good way to open up communication between the public and our police department,” said Officer Muntean. “A lot of people just feel more comfortable posting on the Wall than talking on the phone.”

While setting up the page he found that people tended to check Facebook more often than the newspaper and so it was the perfect place to share mug shots and other pertinent information. So far his hunch has paid off as three people whose warrants were posted on the page have turned themselves in — including a mother who cajoled her son to turn himself in after seeing his warrant on Facebook.

Facebook gives his department more control over information than releasing it through traditional media, Muntean said, which is why more departments are likely to start using the social network in the future. The Facebook page has proven, in three short weeks, to be an effective tool to communicate with the public; a recent poll he posted about an Ohio traffic law received 50-plus comments in six minutes.

“I try to use it as an educational tool,” Muntean says of the Facebook page, “It makes peoples’ lives a little easier and safer.”