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Social Media Not Meant for Emergency Assistance, Police Say

The expectation of two-way interaction should stop when the page’s fans begin to expect urgent help, according to West Virginia Police spokesman Lt. Michael Baylous.

(TNS) -- As emergency responders have increasingly turned to social media to interact with the public, they are seeing an unintended, potentially dangerous side effect.

Some police agencies have set up Facebook and Twitter profiles in an effort to share information and create positive perceptions of police. The profiles can be useful for accepting crime tips, dispelling misconceptions, and to some, sharing the information police view as pertinent directly, without what they might view as media interference.

On the West Virginia State Police page, which has about 120,000 likes, the administrator can be even be seen interacting directly in comments with people who like the page.

To some, sending a request for help might seem like a logical next step.

But the expectation of two-way interaction should stop when the page’s fans begin to expect urgent assistance, according to State Police spokesman Lt. Michael Baylous.

Baylous said the page has received several messages in which the person is requesting an immediate response.

“We have a generation now that are becoming young adults that that’s how they communicate,” he said. “That’s all they’ve ever known is to communicate with text messages and emails and in messages. They weren’t raised in an environment where you had to actually pick up the phone and call somebody and talk to them or stop in a detachment and ask for help.”

Baylous has written multiple posts from the State Police’s accounts, asking people not to request urgent assistance through social media.

On June 29, the State Police Facebook page said, “Reminder ... Facebook is not an appropriate forum to request immediate assistance from the WVSP. We do not have the manpower nor the resources to monitor it 24/7. Please call the detachment or 911 directly, stop by a detachment in person, or download our free app, which has links to our detachments. Here is an example of some of the messages we occasionally receive that may go unnoticed for an extended period of time: ‘I need a car placed outside my house there is a man very mad that might come here and do damage to me or his girlfriend.’”

Baylous said there are other options for times when talking on a phone might not be feasible, such as a kidnapping or domestic-violence situation. He suggesting texting a friend and asking them to call for help, posting a public Facebook post asking friends to call for help, or calling 911 and leaving the line open to signal distress to dispatchers.

“There are a lot better options than sending a private Facebook message,” he said.

Captain James Agee of the St. Albans Police Department said he has received a few similar messages to his “James ‘Captain’ Agee” Facebook profile. He often uses the page to comment about police work, and accepts requests from any community members who want to friend him.

“If it’s at two or three in the morning, I’m really not going to see that,” he said.

Agee said he understands the value of new technologies — all the officers at his department have smartphones — but the 26-member agency is too small to constantly monitor incoming messages on social media.

“Usually what we’ve gotten is a suspicious car in an alley or some sort of prowler or a loud disturbance,” he said. “We haven’t gotten anything really, really serious yet.

“Thankfully, it is infrequent.”

Cabell County 911 has embraced social media over the last few years. The organization even has an account on Instagram, a photo-sharing application, and on Periscope, a live video application, in addition to Facebook and Twitter.

“They want information right now,” said Steve Rutherford, support services coordinator for the 911 center. “They don’t want to wait until the 6 o’clock news to see it.”

The Cabell County 911 center has received a couple requests for assistance through social media so administrators have also written posts asking people to call 911, not send messages.

Rutherford said calling 911 will always be a quicker way to get assistance and an easier way to have a back-and-forth conversation, but said the 911 center does recognize that in some situations, a victim may not be able to ask out loud for help. He said Cabell County 911 hopes to get text-to-911, which Kanawha County already has, when phones are upgraded within the next year.

Charleston Police Department has a Facebook page for the Criminal Investigation Division, as well as an inactive Twitter account. Police Chief Brent Webster and Charleston Police Lt. Steve Cooper, chief of detectives, said they were not aware of any urgent requests that have come through their social media accounts.

Cooper said he said he understands how some people might see requesting help via social media as the next step in a progression, as agencies have increased their use of social media.

“Social media is not something we have gone to as a means of 24-hour communication at this point,” he said. “911 will probably always be the quickest way to get police assistance. Ten years from now, it may progress to that point as police departments get younger and more members are social media savvy. Ten years ago, it didn’t exist.”

©2015 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.