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Facebook, Twitter become new public safety tool

POSTED: June 1, 2013 12:42 a.m.

Social media started out largely as a hangout for young people. But as it evolved to reach wider audiences across generations, law enforcement agencies have latched on as well.

“In general, as a police department, we have to keep up, and Twitter and Facebook have become almost the norm as a communication tool,” Cpl. Kevin Holbrook, Gainesville Police Department spokesman and member of the community relations unit, said.

The Hall County Sheriff’s Office has noticeably bolstered its social media presence since bringing Deputy Chad Mann on board in his new role as Community Service Officer and back-up public information officer.

“This is a social society, and now, one that feeds off what they see online,” Mann said. “What social media has done is given us another dimension where people can find out public information where they haven’t received it in the past. It’s opened up a door to communicate with the public without having to relay information by phone or face-to-face.”

Mann said social media is a two-way street: It facilitates both getting information to the public, and the potential for the public to inform law enforcement.

“Social media has the potential to help take the case load off unsolvable cases, the ones waiting for courts, or unable to bring to court by bringing in information,” Mann said. “We do have a warrant division and they do a fantastic job, but social media allows us to have extra eyes and ears out on the streets.”

For example, the office recently coordinated with the Criminal Investigation’s Unit to put out information on its Facebook page: “Wanted Wednesday,” read the eye-catching post with the man’s charges and photograph.

“It depends a lot on the type of criminal activity going on, and CID will determine who needs to be run at what time,” Mann said. “The one that you saw this last Wednesday, that is the kind of person and information we need to disseminate.”

But with the power of quick access and information sharing can come the problem of false information pandemics, both agencies said.

Holbrook cited an instance of squashing an inaccurate and misleading safety tip that had gone “viral” on social media.

“Many times we’re able to put a number of rumors to rest through social media. Recently there was a rumor that went viral that stated if you happen to be stopped by someone you feel is a police impersonator, you’re able to dial a certain number on your phone to confirm, when in fact that’s not true,” he said.

Mann echoed that sentiment, saying information on the Internet isn’t all verified and not always true.

“A lot of what people see is incorrect, and the Hall County Sheriff’s Office is a trusted source, and we want to make the public aware that there is a trusted source you can get information from,” Mann said. “You can’t necessarily trust everything on the Internet. If it comes from the Hall County Sheriff’s Office you know that the information is reliable.”

Holbrook said that the interaction with the public on social media serves another purpose to humanize the office.

“People tend to look at law enforcement officers in a different manner, and utilizing social media can help with that perception,” he said. “One, it does gives that human element; and two, it allows the public to see what all programs we do. We do more than simply respond to calls and write tickets, and in fact, that’s a rather small portion of what we do.”

“It also shows the public that we are tangible — we’re not just something you read about or hear about in the paper,” Mann said.

And there will be more to come, Mann said.

“We’re also starting a blog, and also have podcasts, a YouTube channel, and a couple other things coming down the pipe, so hopefully we’ll be able to enhance what is a valuable tool for community building and public relations,” he said.

Mann said social media also grants anonymity where desired, citing a question about the Sheriff’s Office flag day ceremony as an example of outreach through the Facebook page.

“We’re able to provide that information, and then share it with everyone else who may have wanted to ask that same question. Some people aren’t as public, they may not want to put their question out in the public, but they can still find their answer,” he said.

On a National level, Holbrook noted how social media has helped law enforcement serve the public.

“During the Boston bombing in April, Boston police and agencies were able to reach nearly 75,000 people in a matter of minutes through social media,” Holbrook said.

And they look to other agencies to see how they can continue to adapt and thrive on social media.

“We do look to other agencies, and the officers that manage our social media pages and networks, they go through extensive training on how to properly utilize the social media, as well as how it can benefit the community relations unit,” Holbrook said.

In addition to Holbrook, Cpl. Joe Britte manages the department’s social media presence.

With the annual Hall County sheriff’s 5K coming, Mann said the office will be ramping up their social media outreach efforts to promote the event.


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