While the social media can't replace face-to-face interactions, it has a wider reach, and with such platforms as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Periscope, police can hold "virtual community meetings" every couple of minutes.
(TNS) — After Anne Arundel County, Md., police responded to a call about an abandoned 6-week-old infant on July 4, the department posted the baby's photo on Facebook and Twitter.
"Abandoned infant found on #Pasadena roadway Do you know the parents of this baby?"
The message found its way to the mother in less than 12 hours. She contacted police.
As of late last month, that message had been retweeted more than 450 times and the Facebook post — updated several times — was shared more than 3,400 times, reaching more than 5 million people, said police spokesman Lt. T.J. Smith.
The county's police department has more than more than 55,000 followers on its Facebook page on more than 25,000 on Twitter.
The department also has Pinterest, YouTube, Periscope and Instagram accounts.
While the social media can't replace face-to-face interactions, it has a wider reach, Smith said. With these new platforms, police can hold "virtual community meetings" every couple of minutes, he said.
When the county police first joined Facebook and Twitter in 2009, the department used the services like email, sending out press releases to subscribers.
Around 2012, the department decided to expand, using the platforms to help identify suspects whose images had been captured by surveillance cameras, publicize award-winning officers, encourage good safety habits and even chime in on trending topics, such as the 2014 World Cup.
Smith said the department tailors messages for different sites. Twitter is for headlines and updates. Facebook is for longer posts and details. The department is considering opening an account on SnapChat, a smartphone app for sending photos for a couple of seconds.
Last fall, the department joined Pinterest — a site where people typically share recipes and wedding planning ideas — to post infographics and surveillance videos, because that platform focuses on photos and videos.
"If you're wondering what cold cases we have ... you can go on Pinterest and see that," Smith said.
For the record, Smith said he also uses Pinterest for its great recipes.
In the last couple of years, the department has adapted to the social media habits of its online community.
Smith said posts on marijuana arrests inevitably drew comments on the legalization debate.
So he began these posts with "already know what you're going to say," to quiet the chatter.
For a period of time, the department posted photos of people charged with crimes, including theft.
Justin Mulcahy, another police spokesman, said many of those posts elicited racist and vulgar comments he had to delete. So the practice was stopped.
Since 2013, the department only posts photos of people charged with serious crimes, such as murder and rape, and cases with a high degree of public interest, such as wanted suspects and missing persons.
Earlier this year, police posted a photo of a suspect who stole a purse in Glen Burnie. Less than an hour later, someone contacted the police with a name.
Smith declined to share the department's current social media guidelines because they are being revised.
The department, he said, developed its current "best practices" over time. These include updating posts for ongoing investigations and balancing the heavy crime stories with occasional lighthearted items.
Police officials have also learned to write catchy headlines, reach new audiences and efficiently use the 140 characters allocated to a Twitter post.
But there are dangers in using social media, experts said.
Police departments that post too many mug shots risk damaging their community relations, said Hassan Aden, director of research and programs at the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Alexandria, Va.
Aden called social media a "Wild West frontier" police departments are still trying to find the best way to use.
Officers have to know the community to anticipate how social media campaigns will play out, he said.
Last year, the New York Police City Department asked community members to tweet about their positive interactions with the police with #MyNYPD. It backfired — badly. Many users tweeted out pictures of confrontations with police.
The hashtag still exist today, documenting images of police in physical confrontations with people, according to Twitter.
Posts don't always have to be serious to be successful.
Last year, Anne Arundel police — fed up with the long winter — charged groundhog weather forecaster Punxsutawney Phil with "excessive winter" and "failing to do right," and posted his mugshot on Twitter. It became one of the department's most popular posts.
"We live, breath, sweat and get frustrated with the same exact things as you do," Smith said.
Aden said presenting the human side of policing through social media, such as images of officers in schools and at barbecues, can gradually change the community's perspective on police.
The second most popular post on the department's account was a photo of a Post-it note from a community member thanking officers for their service, Smith said.
In the last three months, about a third of all police tips came from social media posts, Smith said.
It's still hard to tell when a post will go viral.
"It's like being a TV studio executive" Smith said.
Some posts the department thinks should do well flop; others that seem ordinary become wildly popular.
Whatever the case, posts have to be accurate.
Take the ongoing case involving the woman charged with abandoning her baby.
Curtis Bay resident Sandra McClary became the subject of national condemnation after she was charged with child neglect. About four days later, the State's Attorney's Office released information that showed the man in the car with her had been charged with second-degree assault for beating her before she drove off without the baby, according to police.
Smith said police made a mistake by not releasing the information, resulting in an incomplete presentation of the situation.
He said the information on the assault charge was not communicated to the public relations department. But he maintained it does not alter the charges against McClary.
"Bottom line, it was wrong," Smith said. "We should have gotten that information out. We are sorry for any misinterpretation anyone might have had as a result."
Mulcahy said the department's goal is to avoid such mistakes.
"We don't want to be first, we want to be right."
©2015 The Capital (Annapolis, Md.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.