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Police social media

Law enforcement use of social media growing

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Sheriff’s deputies trying to arrest a man on a routine warrant Tuesday chased him on foot into a DeArmanville neighborhood, where he hid in a shed.

Residents there sent the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office private Facebook  messages within seconds, wanting to know what was happening, and got prompt replies. The man was quickly found and arrested.

That’s just one of the many ways law enforcement agencies are using social media to communicate with the public and to solve crimes. With those tools come responsibility, however, local law enforcement officials say, and social media can be both a blessing and a curse.

“We consistently use it for outreach,” said Calhoun County Chief Deputy Matthew Wade. “We want to be part of our community.”

The Sheriff’s Office regularly posts surveillance photos taken at robberies and thefts, and twice a week posts videos of the county’s “most wanted.”

Those posts work, Wade said, and more often than not, tips called in or sent through Facebook private messages lead to arrests. Such messages never replace calling 911 in the event of an immediate emergency, however, Wade said.

With that connectivity can also come comments from the public that unintentionally spread misinformation, Wade said. The Sheriff’s Office has a social media policy — no profanity, comments must stay on topic — but monitoring those posts can be taxing, he said, and reining in untrue rumors is almost impossible.

“Some comments are good and some are dangerous and inaccurate,” Wade said. Posting misinformation, such as when someone mistakenly posted in November that all Calhoun County schools were on lockdown, can lead to unnecessary panic.

Even so, more and more law enforcement agencies are spending time online. It’s a trend Wade said he believes will continue to change his line of work.

“It has good uses. You just have to be careful of how you use it,” Wade said.

A 2013 social media survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that 95.9 percent of the 500 police departments surveyed use social media, most commonly for investigations, with 86 percent of those agencies reporting doing so.

Facebook is used most among those agencies, with Twitter and Youtube following behind, according to the survey.

Anniston police also use Facebook to identify suspects by posting surveillance photos taken during crimes, said police Chief Shane Denham, but the department is careful about what information it provides the public about crimes through such means.

“We can’t release all of the details,” Denham said, but that’s what the public wants, and as quickly as possible.

Doing so often means jeopardizing investigations and can wreck court cases, Denham explained.

Anniston police Capt. Allen George is responsible for the department’s social media accounts, and said he gets between eight and 10 private messages per day through them from people wanting to help solve crimes or tip police to new crimes.

That type of connectivity to the public is what telephone services such as Crime Stoppers were designed to do, Denham said.

With so many people now using social media it made sense to make that an option for tipsters, Denham said. Many of the tipsters may feel more comfortable sending messages through Facebook than talking on the phone, he said.

“People feel safe,” Denham said.

It isn’t all crimes and wanted persons, however. Among the Anniston police Facebook page’s latest posts are an advertisement for the city’s upcoming Christmas parade and toy drive, and information on an accident causing traffic delays.

Some Facebook posts tend to draw more attention than others, Denham explained.

A post to the department’s Facebook page with security video of a man dressed as a ghost robbing a gas station went viral, George said.

The video had been viewed over 96,000 times as of Thursday.  

“I had to sign a release for it to be used in the United Kingdom,” George said.

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.