Social media a useful tool for law enforcement
by Mark Ledbetter
Sep 23, 2012 | 11307 views |  0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Sylacauga Police Chief Chris Carden monitors his department’s Facebook page and keeps it fresh by changing pictures and posting announcements. Mark Ledbetter/The Daily Home
Sylacauga Police Chief Chris Carden monitors his department’s Facebook page and keeps it fresh by changing pictures and posting announcements. Mark Ledbetter/The Daily Home
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Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, three major social media platforms, have become tools for local law enforcement.

Facebook is “rewriting the rules” of social engagement, Consumer Report cites Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg as saying.

People use social media to keep up with family and friends, post pictures, announce events, form support groups and network businesses.

“Social media reaches deep into the daily lives of the public,” Frank Domizio writes in his blog for the Philadelphia Department of Media Relations and Public Affairs. “It would be negligent for the police not to make use of this avenue to reach the people that we are empowered to serve. Meeting the public where they live, on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, is having an effect similar to putting officers in communities on foot patrol; it creates a partnership.”

Sylacauga Police Chief Chris Carden agrees.

“In the past, contact was out in the field and limited, but with social media it is constant, an on-going conversation with those who follow (Facebook pages),” he said.

Carden said he attended a class teaching the benefits of social networking and how to apply it in local police departments.

Social network platforms provide three basic tools for law enforcement: public awareness, public relations and criminal investigation.

Carden said his department’s Facebook page has had a significant impact on public awareness. Recently, an accident involving a train and a car brought traffic to a halt on Sylacauga’s main thoroughfares.

“The railroad crossing through Sylacauga has always been a major concern for the police chief,” Carden said. “In the past when an incident occurred, the chief would constantly receive calls. Then the chief would have to then make several calls.

“In the recent incident, I received one call reporting the incident and I posted it on Facebook. One message, click, send and over 3,300 people have access to the message,” he said.

Carden said he contacted the Sylacauga Board of Education, which sent the message to personnel and parents.

“I didn’t receive one call (complaining),” he said.

The department uses Facebook to post information about upcoming events, including “National Night Out,” “Coffee with a Cop,” and others, Carden said.

He said information about door-to-door salesmen is sometimes posted. “We check them out and report if they are legitimate or not.”

Carden said he especially enjoys posting historically significant information and pictures. He recently posted a 1985 group picture of department employees, some who are now deceased.

“Their families appreciated seeing the picture,” he said.

“To be successful, there must be daily interaction with followers.”

Carden said he keeps the page fresh by changing pictures, posting announcements, officers’ birthdays and other information daily.

The more controversial posts, Carden said, are those regarding felony and drug arrests. Sgt. Tommy Allen is responsible for posting arrests and he takes them off the next day, he said.

“It is a matter of public information,” Carden said. “A survey was taken of followers asking what they wanted posted and the number one request was drug arrests.”

He said posts are as accurate and thorough as possible and are monitored closely.

“I monitor the page throughout the day, on the road from my phone and at night at home,” Carden said.

“We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments, but seek to maintain a balance between free speech and negative comments, but we will not allow slanderous statements. Otherwise, followers have the option to block the message.”

An area of concern for Carden is employee use of social media. A CNN article reported about an Albuquerque, N.M., officer who discredited himself by listing his occupation on social media as “human waste disposal.”

“It is an ongoing struggle to ensure inappropriate materials are not posted,” Carden said. “Officers have an obligation not to embarrass the city or the department.”

The department is in the process of formulating a formal policy regarding employee use of social media, he said. “What is said may be forgotten with time, but what is posted on social media is forever,” Carden said.”

Social media platforms have also become an important investigative tool.

Sylacauga Chief Investigator Lt. Jason McNeill said Facebook has been helpful in providing tips leading to possible suspects.

“People will leave messages,” he said. “People like to get involved and this is good for us.”

Childersburg Chief Investigator Doug Wesson said social media has assisted his department in identifying possible suspects.

“Some can leave incriminating information,” he said.

Wesson said one felon recently released from prison made the mistake of posting a picture of himself posing with an assault weapon and a side arm.

“He’s not supposed to have a bullet,” Wesson said.

He said the picture was sufficient evidence that helped lead to an arrest, conviction and return to prison.

Contact Mark Ledbetter at mledbetter@dailyhome.com.