Police look for ‘likes’

Police departments are quick to point it out: how hard they work at relating to the public so that they might better protect it.

In keeping with that proclamation and the changing norms of communication, law enforcement agencies have been tightening their their embrace of social media. Among the most recent agencies to embrace that world is the Richfield Police Department, which christened its own Facebook page in November and started a Twitter account last week.

The goal is to distribute information faster and more efficiently, said Sgt. Brad Drayna, who helped spearhead the department’s entry into the world of social media. The plan is still developing, but Drayna sees Facebook as a place to post items such as major case developments, suspect descriptions, or updates on the department’s various activities.

He sees Twitter, on the other hand, as the tool for the most immediate notices, like news on traffic accidents and other emergencies. In particular, Twitter is useful to announce unforeseen road blockages. “It’d be nice to push that to people live so they can avoid the area and know what’s going on,” Drayna said.

Last week, Richfield Police used Facebook for the first time to announce major news about a case, when a mug shot of a man accused of attempted murder appeared on the site, along with a brief note announcing his arrest.

Before launching their own Facebook page, Richfield Police consulted with Eden Prairie Police, which was one of the first departments in the Twin Cities to try the site. Because of that, Eden Prairie has become a popular source of guidance from other agencies considering a dive into social media.

While those departments have traditional websites, “Facebook is easier to have communication with citizens,” said Ryan Kapaun, a law enforcement analyst for Eden Prairie Police who helped initiate Eden Prairie Police’s Facebook page in September 2009.

Law enforcement agencies find hope in the idea that people act differently online. “Individuals who otherwise would not ask questions feel like they can post it on the police department page,” Kapaun said.

One woman took to the Richfield Police Facebook page last week to voice her concerns over a busy crosswalk at a roundabout. “Crossing the street on Portland Avenue and 66th Street can be scary,” she said, complaining that sometimes cars don’t stop even when she pushes the button for the crosswalk light.

“Hopefully people reading this post will pay more attention,” she posted.

Drayna made a similar observation, admitting that approaching a uniformed fully armed police officer in person can be an intimidating task. “Sometimes people are afraid of the police,” he said.

The police departments that Kapaun advises can be hesitant themselves, when it comes to social media. “They’re just concerned about — you can’t control what other people post,” he said, although the public’s use of the Eden Prairie page is “overwhelmingly positive,” and administrators have had to delete just a few posts that may have been vulgar or topically inappropriate.

Another channel

Contrary to some officers’ concerns, Drayna sees Facebook as a tool to better control his department’s message. “I think it seems more reputable if it comes from the police instead of a third-hand party,” he said.

That would include the traditional media, but also other Facebook sites, like the popular page Police Clips, whose administrators monitor emergency scanners for breaking public safety news, sometimes posting scanner audio along with the entries.

Police Clips can distribute this information quickly, in the heat of the moment, but for Drayna the page also highlights some drawbacks to social media. The real-time nature of the resource has the potential to hinder law enforcement efforts, he said.

While other law-enforcement-focused pages can light up at the hint of a scintilating police action, don’t expect to see a blow-by-blow account of the next high-speed car chase on Richfield Police’s Facebook or Twitter.

“There’s a fine line of what we might post live or what we might not,” Drayna said, noting that Richfield Police give careful consideration to the information they volunteer, especially relating to ongoing investigations.

“(Police Clips is) putting information out that becomes available from the police radio, but sometimes something from the police radio could be compromising to the case,” Drayna said, although he added: “I think it’s mostly harmless.”

For Kapaun, the benefits of an active social media presence have easily outweighed the risks. It is difficult to tell if the Eden Prairie Police Facebook page has prevented any crimes directly or indirectly, but it has helped solve them, he said.

“We’ve had a lot where either citizens have stepped up and responded to surveillance video stills we’ve posted and confirmed suspects who we’ve had an inkling it was them,” Kapaun said. Eden Prairie Police have also been tipped off via Facebook to perpetrators who were not even on their radar, he added.

In Richfield, Facebook hasn’t yet helped solve a case, but “it’s definitely a possibility,” Drayna said.

Social media came in handy last summer for neighboring Edina Police when they used Facebook to spread the word about a rash of burglaries in the northwest corner of the city, said Kaylin Martin, Edina Police public information officer. The Edina Police Department does not have its own Facebook account, but uses the city’s Facebook page to communicate with the public, posting items such as press releases to the page as a supplement its regular website.

Compared to some neighbors, the Bloomington Police Department’s social media presence is minimal. The department posts occasional updates to the city’s Facebook page, but does not have its own account. “The police department itself does not do a lot with Facebook and Twitter,” said Vic Poyer, Bloomington Police public information officer.

His department uses email alerts to keep in touch with the public and neighborhood watch captains. As for embracing social media, “we’re looking at it,” Poyer said.

Richfield Police are still looking at how they will ultimately come to use social media. “We’re trying to feel out what we’re going to do with it yet,” Drayna said, “but I think it’s going to be pretty helpful.”

Finding followers

One way to measure the effectiveness of social media for a police department is how popular it actually is. In other words, the more well “liked,” the better.

With 325 people “liking” Richfield Police’s Facebook page as of last Friday, the department has a goal of reaching 1,000 people in the next couple months. The Eden Prairie Police page has nearly 1,500 “likes.”

Richfield Police are looking to expand their Facebook coverage by starting with those who are already positively engaged with law enforcement, a group that includes the city’s network of neighborhood watch block captains.

One of those is Steve Strom, one of a handful of block captains connected to the site. “It’s so new that I don’t know how well it’s going to work,” said Strom, who has had his own Facebook account for four years and got into Twitter six months ago. The 49-year-old thinks people his age and younger may well embrace the tool, but that people ages 55 and above, a demographic he says comprises a large proportion of the block captain corps, may ignore it.

However they gather new “friends,” Richfield Police hope to keep people interested by posting insightful content. So plans call for officers to submit ideas for unique topics the page might address. For instance, perhaps a SWAT commander will explain how a search warrant is executed, or a patrol officer may illuminate procedures regarding vehicle crashes, Drayna suggested.

They may also use Facebook to conduct online polls or forums, too. But at the same time, if they listen to Kapaun’s advice, they will also be careful not to oversaturate their page with banality, which could turn off fatigued users.

“We’re trying to be conscious that people are getting inundated with information,” Kapaun said.

Strom thinks Richfield Police already have a healthy intimacy with the community due in part to their dedicated dispatch center — many public safety departments run their dispatches out of a shared facility — and the relatively small area they must cover.

“They’re very good at being connected,” Strom said. “I would say that even if I wasn’t a block captain.”

Contact Andrew Wig at [email protected]