August 31, 2009 By Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor
Community policing in the true sense isn't what it used to be given the state of local-level funding for hiring officers. Although police departments may not have the resources to engage the community face to face as often as they like, they're bridging the gap with Web 2.0 tools like Facebook and MySpace, as well as specialized law enforcement tools like CrimeDex and CrimeReports.com. Police have landed on Twitter too, where they hope to complement traditional media coverage by blasting out "tweets" to reach a segment of the population that might not read the daily news or watch it regularly on television.
Neighborhood policing traditionally meant developing personal relationships with local residents to build trust and cooperation. In many communities, that face-to-face communication has fallen by the wayside as budgets have contracted. The advent of Web 2.0 tools and social media sites has allowed police to reach hundreds of residents in real time.
"You have a whole social networking community now," said Robert Schommer, police chief of the Huber Heights, Ohio, Police Department. "One officer can only reach out to so many people. If we can reach out to all those people who want to be reached, wow, what a force multiplier. Instead of the traditional officer walking through a neighborhood knocking on doors, we can outreach to the whole block and then some, and maybe a couple of people passing through the area who don't even live there."
Soon after sites like Facebook and MySpace materialized, police realized that criminals aren't shy about posting their criminal exploits and documenting their crimes online -- sometimes knowingly, sometimes not. Police know sexual predators troll these sites for victims. Even murder suspects can leave clues on their Facebook or MySpace pages. Now there's an almost constant police presence on these sites: behind the scenes where they may be quietly hunting sex offenders, or an upfront approach by posting videos and evidence to elicit public response that might help solve a crime.
Recently police in Auburn, Maine, arrested three crooks involved in a vandalism case after posting surveillance video on the department's Facebook page.
"We went live with Facebook back in February, and one of the first days we went live we posted some surveillance photos from a security camera of some kids who had broken into a local hotel and done some damage," said Jason Moen, deputy chief of the Auburn Police Department. "Within 48 hours of posting, we had names, addresses, the kids identified, interviewed and charged with burglary."
But it's more than nabbing vandalism suspects. Police are using these sites more often to share data, photos and videos about a wide variety of crimes.
"Detectives use every means of the traditional ways and also the new ways," said Mark Economou, public information manager of the Boca Raton Police Department in Florida. "It's very valuable to be able to put up a surveillance video on YouTube. Where the local TV station will air it on the 6 o'clock news and you may not see it again, we can keep that video up forever." The Boca Raton P.D. posted a clip of an armed robbery on YouTube that's been clicked on nearly 2,000 times.
The Auburn P.D. uses Facebook as its social networking vessel, Moen said. "We have press releases we put out that some of the media doesn't pick up because it's not newsworthy enough -- like when those kids broke into the hotel, we didn't issue a press
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