Police Increasingly Use Social Media to Reach Public

In the past, when police needed to reach the public, it meant holding meetings or going to news outlets. Now, law enforcement agencies are increasingly reaching the public through social media.

by Anthony Watt, Moline Dispatch / December 2, 2019
Shutterstock/TheaDesign

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The Facebook video shows the interior of a car to viewers as if they were watching from the hood. Inside East Moline, Ill., officers are lip syncing to the musical intro of “That '70s Show” and bobbing their heads as the camera shifts from moment to moment. With each shift, the cops, one of whom is a dog, are in different seats.

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The clerk in the video is behind the counter taking a sip from a bottle when the robbers come onscreen. One points a gun at the clerk while the other comes behind the counter of the Moline, Ill., convenience store and begins grabbing cash out of the register. Their hoods are up and their faces obscured. The Moline police posted the video on Facebook in hopes of a tip that would help break the case.

“We are asking for the public’s assistance in identifying two armed robbery suspects from an incident today…”

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The diagram shows brightly colored cars cooperating to keep traffic flowing in a construction zone. The goal: prevent congestion on the Interstate 74 bridge.

“Zipper merging works, so please don't swerve over and block both lanes,” the post states.

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In the past, when police needed to reach the public, it meant burning shoe leather, or holding meetings, or going to news outlets. Now, though police still do those things, law enforcement is increasingly reaching the public through social media.

“It’s kind of a way for us to be transparent,” East Moline Police Department Sgt. Tony Frankowski said.

East Moline police post information about cases the public needs to know about or that the department needs help breaking, Frankowski said. Those postings include statements also issued to the news media.

“It’s coming straight from our police department,” Frankowski said.

The public, Frankowski said, appreciates it, and the activity encourages people to contact the authorities.

For Crime Stoppers, an organization that encourages the public to provide information to help law enforcement, the social media equation is pretty simple — post a crime’s details and the pictures, said Moline Police Department Detective Jon Leach, who oversees the program.

“It’s like a big net,” Leach said.

The effect has been amplified because of work Crime Stoppers does with Quad-City news outlets, Leach said. Those outlets share featured crimes on their own social media accounts. Leach credited those partnerships with helping increase the number of tips and arrests resulting from Crime Stoppers.

In 2017, for example, before the more in-depth work with news outlets, Crime Stoppers received 822 tips resulting in 51 arrests and 91 cases cleared, Leach said.

In 2018, those numbers had climbed to 1,642 tips, 145 arrests and 198 cases cleared, Leach said.

Rock Island Police Department Deputy Chief Jason Foy said the first post his department put on its Facebook page asked for information that would identify a person as part of an investigation.

It took less than 24 hours to get a positive identification, he said.

Social media is also used to directly gather evidence, law enforcement said.

Some people will post things on social media that incriminate them, Coal Valley Police Chief Jack Chick said; some even brag about their participation in a crime.

“We’ve solved burglaries,” Chick said. “We’ve solved thefts. We’ve located people.”

Social media can also be used to help identify relationships among different people during an investigation, Bettendorf Police Chief Keith Kimball said.

Kimball said officers can also use a person’s social media posts during a crime investigation or when there is concern for the person’s welfare. How that person was posting can help police determine their state of mind.

“Are they depressed?” Kimball said. “Are they angry?”

Other ways police departments reach out to the public through social media are about developing connections, police said.

“We want people to know we are humans,” Bettendorf police Sgt. George Ramos said.

Frankowski said outreach at East Moline includes everything from wishing people well on holidays to showing police officers doing charity work in the community.

Thus the videos of singing cops and other light-hearted posts.

“We’re all human beings,” Frankowski said. “We all like to laugh. We can all come together over humor.”

Those various efforts have had tangible effects, Frankowski said. People have come up and talked to Frankowski because of posts in which he was featured.

Police reminding people that there is a person behind a badge helps develop a mutual respect and brings those two parts of a community together, which makes the community safer, Frankowski said.

Chick said his department’s interactions with the public have been mostly positive. Some people even give helpful tips that help Coal Valley officers use social media more effectively.

The future value of social media for law enforcement depends on the people who use it, Chick said. Their experiences will determine what they do and do not share online.

Foy said technology develops so quickly that he could not say what the social media of the future would look like, but thought police would still be using it.

“I see it continuing to be a tool that departments will use across the country,” Foy said. “I think it’s a good thing.”

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Sandeep Singh Dhaliwal was not a Bettendorf police officer, but just the same, the department posted a memorial for the Texas sheriff’s deputy who was recently killed in the line of duty. His was one of many such testaments to slain law enforcement to be found on the Iowa department’s Facebook page.

“Rest in Peace Deputy Sheriff Dhaliwal. Your watch has ended. We will hold the line.”

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An image of an email, asking the people of Coal Valley for help purchasing gift cards for women being treated for cancer in the hospital.

“Residents - please be aware of a new scam that has been sent out …”

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A picture of a little girl, Trudy Appleby, who has been missing for more than 20 years. A girl whose whereabouts the police are still seeking. The post includes an appeal to anyone who has been holding onto information that might break the case:

“If you know something, it’s time to say something. Call Crime Stoppers of the Quad Cities at 309-762-9500 or Moline Police at 309-524-2140.”

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©2019 Moline Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, Ill. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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