Calif. cops trace pros and cons of social media

One department's Facebook page is now devoted to cold cases in hopes that online discussion will generate new leads

By Rick Hurd
Contra Costa Times

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Lt. Zach Perron's cell phone alerted him one recent evening to a Twitter post mentioning the Palo Alto Police Department.

"I just wanted to report," the tweet read, "that we have a MIA crunch wrap. @TacoBell @PaloAltoPolice."

Perron was off-duty, but he played along anyway.

"We recommend," Perron tweeted back, "that you keep calm and crunch on."

That kind of exchange, while lighthearted, points to a challenge facing all Bay Area departments: How to engage residents using quickly changing  and instantaneous  social media tools to both solve crimes and help build community trust.

"If you believe in community engagement and community policing, then you have to accept that there's a large portion of the population  and it's only getting bigger  that get most of their news through social media," said Richmond police Chief Chris Magnus. "It's here to stay. And it has really changed the game."

Some Bay Area departments regularly use social media to get help in investigations: "Burglary investigators would like a chat with Mr. Jamille Jackson; can you help and/or RT?" Oakland police Lt. Chris Bolton posted recently on Twitter.

Web tools also are essential for officers monitoring criminal activity, especially if they have someone under surveillance or are in a hurry to stop something that's already happening.

In January, for example, a kidnapped Antioch girl was found hours after an Amber Alert was sent out after a witness who saw the girl with the suspected kidnapper spotted them and alerted police.

Even unsolved cases can get new momentum through social media: A Contra Costa Sheriff's Facebook page is now devoted to cold cases in hopes that online discussion will generate new leads.

The challenge now is to keep up with the evolving social media landscape.

"Think about it," Concord police Chief Guy Swanger said. "Facebook is only 10 years old. Twitter is less than that. Other platforms are even newer. Social media is in its infancy. It's still evolving. With that evolution come challenges that are also evolving. This is the ground floor for it, and we're all feeling our way through it."

Perron has waded in deeper than most. As the Palo Alto police public information manager, he welcomes the added interaction with residents. Hence the quick response to the frivolous tweet about a missing fast-food dinner.

"Just like that," said Perron, "I picked up about 30 or 40 followers  most of them teenagers. And that's a segment of the population that, historically, police departments have a hard time reaching and communicating with. So that's a win for us."

A bigger win: Perron's Twitter photo in October showing Santa Clara County police and fire chiefs inside the construction of the San Francisco 49ers' new stadium impersonating 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's touchdown pose. The photo had more than 250 re-tweets, including one by Kaepernick to his 576,000 or so followers.

"It's an amazing way to open the doors and bring people in," agreed Sgt. Albert Morales, a spokesman for the San Jose Police Department. "It gives people in the community the opportunity to feel like when they are reaching out, they can be heard."

In Richmond, Magnus says social media has helped change how residents perceive their city and its police force. Six years ago, Richmond ranked among the nation's 10 most dangerous cities with 47 homicides that year. In 2013, the homicide total of 16 was the lowest since 1980 and its total reported crimes were more than 40 percent lower than 10 years ago.

"Let's face it, when a lot of people think of Richmond, they think of it as a place where violent crime occurs. They don't tend to think of it as a place where violent crimes are solved," Magnus said. "When people can go on their Twitter accounts and they follow me, they'll see that, 'Hey, that crime I heard about last week. They caught somebody.' And that really changes the perception."

That reality has turned Magnus into a Twitter hound, at least as far as police chiefs go. He has 467 followers and follows 378, and in the year since he joined Twitter has posted nearly 450 tweets, about everything from crime case updates to witty missives, sans bureaucratic police-speak.

"Loose pants expose crack, ..." he posted March 9 in announcing the arrest of a man who was being cited for drunk and disorderly conduct when eight rocks of crack cocaine fell from his pants.

Magnus acknowledged that his approach has ruffled feathers by revealing his personality and details about his department.

One example: Magnus' ill-timed Facebook post in November of a link to a New York Times story about embattled Toronto mayor Rob Ford that seemed to compare a Richmond city councilman with Ford and his outlandish behavior.

Magnus got his first dose of social media remorse.

"That was wrong," he said. "And I take accountability for that. It wasn't the right thing to do at the time, and I wish I had that one back. But it goes to show you the power of what we're dealing with. When you put something out there, sometimes it can take on a life of its own."

That could explain why not all Bay Area departments are as active as today's digital pace might demand; departments in Berkeley, Walnut Creek and Antioch, just to name a few, sometimes go weeks without updating their Facebook or Twitter pages.

"Managing social media is becoming a full-time responsibility," Walnut Creek police Lt. Steve Gorski said. "It's constantly evolving and changing, and let's face it, it all seems to move so fast that it's impossible to keep up."

Gorski said the speed at which the message moves on social media is worrisome because police work often is slow, diligent work. It's a concern many departments have expressed.

"In the world of policing, nothing in the first couple of hours is ever 100 percent accurate," Swanger said. "We have the responsibility to make sure we put out accurate information, and once it's out there, it's out there."

Some worry that social networking among residents may eventually leave public safety agencies out of the loop altogether. Perron pointed to Nextdoor, a descendant of Facebook that allows people within geographical parameters to share information about their communities, including what they're hearing about crime. Other sites such as Instagram and are gradually becoming teenage watering holes.

Cat Cottle, an Oakley resident who oversees "Fido Alert," a Facebook page geared toward missing pets in East Contra Costa County, recalled a fire in her neighborhood about a year ago. She was alerted by a text from a friend, so she walked outside to make sure it was safe, never thinking to dial 911.

"Someone will post something, and they think that's enough," she said.

"We may eventually be facing a real digital divide," Magnus said. "I don't plan to get to the point where social media becomes the primary way of communicating and getting (our) message out. To me the best way to interact is face-to-face. Nothing beats that, and hopefully nothing ever will."

Copyright 2014 Contra Costa Times


McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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