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RISE Award nominee: How a small police department found a big voice

Chippewa Falls PD makes the most of social media tools to connect with the community and catch criminals

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RISE Awards 2016
Editor’s Note: The TASER | Axon RISE Awards have officially commenced. In the third annual edition of the RISE Award Program, TASER | Axon and Police1 again honor officers and agencies who have risen above the rest. Chippewa Falls PD is a shining example of what an Agency of the Year nominee truly should be. Stay tuned to find out who our winners are!

In Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, a quiet rural community is protected by a small police department of 23 officers. But this tiny department has a big voice, and their success in serving their city and connecting with the people who call it home is all thanks to their use of social media.

Humble beginnings
Chippewa Falls Investigator Rob Teuteberg came up with the idea to expand his department’s social media program three years ago. The department’s Facebook page was unremarkable at that point, with a little over 400 fans and rarely updated. A Twitter account in the department’s name was in similar shape.

“I just thought we were missing the boat by not putting a little more effort and energy into our community outreach.” Teuteberg said. “This is the community policing of our modern day, and it doesn’t take a whole heck of a lot to make a few posts over the course of the day and increase the community interaction.”

After deciding what the agency’s goal would be — spreading a message of positivity and increasing the connection to the community they served — one of the first things Teuteberg did was host an open Q&A. He encouraged members of the community to post whatever law enforcement-related questions they had, from legal questions to curiosity about what life on the beat was like. It caught on right away.

“I thought maybe I would get 10 to 12 questions over the course of the day,” Teuteberg said. “By 10 o’clock, I was so inundated with questions I had to pull my partner in for help. We sat at my desk and answered questions all day long — we had several hundred of them by the end of the day. It completely blew up our Facebook page and really got the ball rolling with this whole social interaction. We realized at that point, this is kind of bigger than we thought it would be.”

Off to the races
That Q&A session would mark the beginning of a series of social media programs that would catapult the department’s Facebook page to the sixth most popular law enforcement page in Wisconsin in just a few short years. In a city of 13,000 residents, the department’s page currently boasts nearly 10,000 likes.

Chippewa Falls uses the page to promote safety and strengthen the community’s connections to their police force and to each another. Safety tips and traffic alerts are featured alongside user-submitted photos of the week and messages correcting common misconceptions about laws or policing. Private messages are quickly answered — anything from legal questions to requests to file a complaint.

The page is so popular that the department often gets messages from users in neighboring jurisdictions. All of this has resulted in a community, once shy about reaching out to the officers who serve them, that now constantly keeps in touch with the 23 officers of the Chippewa Falls PD.

“It’s opened up a direct line of communication that people have never really had before,” Teuteberg said, “They can open our Facebook page, hit one button and send us a message. We’re seeing people reach out to us more and more.”

The department had high hopes that these initiatives would strengthen the bond the department shared with the community, but one thing they did not anticipate was how vital a role the community would play in one of the most important aspects of policing: crime fighting.

What began as an experiment in using the page as a tool for investigations has evolved into what the department says is far and away their most popular and successful campaign, Wanted Wednesday. The department began posting information on individuals with active warrants in the hope that its Facebook fans would lend a helping hand. Now in its third year — with over 150 installments, complete with hashtag — Wanted Wednesday boasts an estimated 85-90 percent success rate. Voluntary compliance makes up most of that success, as many of the wanted individuals turn themselves in.

“It’s great — the officers are in no danger trying to apprehend these warrants. They [the fugitives] take care of it themselves,” Chippewa Falls Police Chief Matthew Kelm said.

Even more impressive is how far the long arm of the law can reach. In one case, the department shared information on Facebook from a neighboring agency searching for a suspect in a sexual assault of a child. Through that post, the department was able to reach someone in California. In less than a week, the suspect was taken into custody through a fugitive task force in southern California and transported back to Wisconsin.

“It really showcases the power of social media when a smaller-size department in a rural community is able to reach that far,” Kelm said. “You don’t have to be a huge department to really use social media effectively.”

It has also yielded incredible results for missing persons cases. Last summer, a developmentally disabled man was located within an hour of going missing — someone spotted him while reading the department’s Facebook post about the case on their smartphone. In all, the department has been able to solve nearly 100 percent of the missing persons cases they’ve shared on social media.

“There’s a lot more that can be done with 13,000 eyes out there than just our 23 officers looking,” Kelm said.

Rising above the negativity
In a time where it can feel like negativity dominates the national conversation about law enforcement, social media can be an extremely powerful tool to highlight the good police officers are doing every day. For Chippewa Falls, broadcasting acts of kindness by their officers serves a dual purpose — it’s a way to build trust in the community and boost morale in the department.

“We get a lot of positive comments that we wouldn’t hear otherwise, and officers like to see when their good work is shown. It’s a great avenue for us to get that message out there,” Kelm said. “When I address the officers, I make sure to let them know we’re hearing through social media that our community supports us. Without this avenue of direct contact with the public, we would never know that. ”

In some cases, sharing these good deeds has resulted in attention more far-reaching than the department could have ever imagined. Last year, a post about two of the department’s officers walking a lost elderly man back to his group home reached over half a million people and led to the officers receiving the Wisconsin State Attorney General’s Top Cop award.

Making nice with the media
For Chippewa Falls, developing a strong relationship with the local media — what many police agencies may consider to be a herculean task — came easy. And they give all the credit for the alliance to their social media presence.

“When our Facebook page started growing, the local media markets picked up on it and they started coming around and calling for more interviews,” Teuteberg said. “Now they’re on a first-name basis with our staff. On average in a given week, we’re probably doing three to four stories.”

Last year alone, the department was showcased 67 times in local television newscasts. They’ve also set up a monthly column, Cop’s Corner, with the local paper that allows them to brief the community on upcoming events or detail the department’s long-term goals.

There’s a comfort on both sides that was virtually nonexistent just a few years ago. And given the demands of the 24-hour news cycle, the department no longer has to go to the media when they want coverage — all they need is their Facebook page.

“Say we want to do a piece on Halloween safety, or people moving over for emergency vehicles,” Kelm said. “All we have to do is put it on Facebook, and they’re calling us. We make ourselves very available to them, and we reap the rewards from that.”

Cops connect
All of this has led to a police department that is truly united with the community they serve.

Whether through educating the public, showcasing the good work officers do every day or getting wanted criminals off the streets, the Chippewa Falls Police Department’s forward-thinking strategy to serve their city and connect with the people who call it home makes the department a deserving candidate for the TASER | Axon and Police1 RISE Agency of the Year Award.

Cole Zercoe previously served as Senior Associate Editor of Lexipol’s and His award-winning features focus on the complexity of policing in the modern world.

Contact Cole Zercoe