More departments utilizing Facebook to catch criminals

In a survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 85 percent said they use social media to solve crimes

By Sarah M. Wojcik
The Morning Call

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — From the time Bethlehem Township police Cpl. Shaun Powell posted the photo on Facebook — a crinkled piece of the hit-and-run driver's truck identifiable only by a partial logo that said "over 45 years experience" — it took only minutes for someone to crack the case.

A reply to the post, in March 2015, alerted township police to the business whose trucks fit the look of the crumpled metal remnant. Powell posted an updated photo later that day when authorities tracked down the damaged vehicle.

"In 12 minutes we solved a mystery hit-and-run. It's amazing," Powell said. "And all we had to do is post it. The takeaway for me is that [social media] is totally worth it."

Police departments, long dependent on traditional media outlets to distribute crime news, can now take the information straight to residents. Powell said Bethlehem Township authorities have found Facebook to be especially good when it comes to solving crimes where a suspect is caught on camera committing acts such as vandalism and retail theft.

This year alone, Facebook had a hand in solving four retail thefts, a criminal mischief case and also helped police nab a fugitive for the township police, Powell said. That's $7,000 worth of crime, he said.

"And that's really just by posting a picture," said Powell. "Before that, most of these kinds of cases, unfortunately, they just kind of fell dead."

Social media have cracked even bigger cases. Bethlehem police posted a surveillance photo of a Wells Fargo bank robber on social media in August 2014 and received an anonymous tip that led them to the suspect, Aloysuis E. Mills, who later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to state prison.

Tim Burrows, a retired Toronto police officer who runs his own consulting firm to help police departments master social media, said it's no fluke that Lehigh Valley departments that have seen this kind of success.

In a 2015 survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 85 percent of police departments said they used social media to solve crimes. Social media have been especially helpful in cracking small crimes, Burrows said.

"Quality-of-life crimes are pretty much the most destructive crimes," Burrows said, noting that violent, headline-grabbing crimes are far more rare and affect far fewer people.

"When you help get back the bike that was stolen from a neighborhood kid for a family that maybe couldn't afford to buy another, it's a quality-of-life issue. And that can make a community so much better."

In the Lehigh Valley, at least 20 police departments, including Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, maintain Facebook pages, though some are more active than others.

In addition to surveillance photos, updates on Lehigh Valley police Facebook pages range from warnings about Internet and phone scams to photos of lost or abandoned animals in need of homes. The social media tool also serves as a platform for police to spread news about initiatives such as prescription drug collections or aggressive driving patrols.

Burrows said social media can be especially potent for smaller departments for whom a tight-knit audience is already eager to engage and learn what's going on in their neighborhoods.

South Whitehall Township police Chief John Christman said his department has, within the last six months, led a concerted effort to use social media to reach out to the residents with crime news and other helpful information. When a rash of vehicle break-ins led to stolen credit card purchases, the department shared surveillance footage in an effort to find the thieves.

A post about a Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom break-in in February, when a group of young men and women entered the South Whitehall park after hours and climbed a 200-foot thrill ride, was shared 428 times by the public.

"We saw how many people were hitting the site and we recognized there is more potential," Christman said. "It's all about making the community more of a partner."

Upper Macungie Township police have had an active Facebook page since the department's inception in 2013. Lt. Pete Nickischer said social media not only can help solve crime but also humanize the officers.

"I think it's really important to show that side," said Nickischer, who maintains the page for the department. "It allows us to broadcast things you wouldn't typically see."

Nickischer said he's quick to share photos that endear Upper Macungie police to residents. Such was the case with a goofy holiday photo in which Chief Edgardo Colon was caught posing with officers donning festive reindeer antlers and Santa hats. The post received hundreds of likes and was, Nickischer said, a silly but effective way to remind the public about the humanity behind the badge.

As Upper Macungie searches for two new police officers, Nickischer has used the Facebook page to unveil parts of the search and interview process, which he said will end with the announcement of the department's latest hires on Facebook.

"I think it's extremely important that people get to see a kind of behind-the-scenes look at what this all entails," Nickischer said.

Police began to take notice of Facebook's potential in 2008, Burrows said, but between then and 2012, embracing the medium remained a struggle mostly because of skeptical leadership who felt investigations should be kept close to the chest.

From 2012 to 2014, Burrows said communities saw an explosion of departments starting pages, but many hadn't yet taken off with their audiences. He said that in the last two years, departments have really started to hit their stride in cyberspace as they learn how to communicate with their particular community. Still, only about one in five departments is using the tool to its full benefit.

"You really have to find your own voice. You have to identify how your audience responds to what you're putting out there," Burrows said. "I tell departments, think like your community, not like your command."

Pat Stonaker, administrative assistant with the Slate Belt Regional Police Department, said she learned that the public wanted more than just crime news after noticing how popular posts about good news and missing animals would spread "just like wildfire." Stonaker said she likes to show the public when police participate in charitable work, such as hospital visits with children or holiday shopping trips for those less fortunate.

And Stonaker doesn't stop at sharing photos of sad-eyed animals discovered by the department — she lets the public know when there's a happy ending in a reunion or adoption. She said she's received positive feedback for such posts that residents call a nice counter to negative and crime-related news.

Departments hesitant about social media because of the potential for mistakes that can go viral ought to know that training and education opportunities are now abundant and can go a long way in preventing mistakes, Burrows said.

In addition to his traveling consultant company Twelve Sixty Six, Burrows said the International Association of Chiefs of Police has its own social media initiative with resources to guide departments.

Burrows suggests departments think of Facebook as one more arm of the community-policing philosophy.

"I would take everything you do about community policing — all the best ideals — and just transfer that into the online space," Burrows said. "They really complement each other perfectly. This is a lot like when the police knock on doors and shake hands with residents. You're just shaking hands. You're just giving that handshake in a virtual space."

Copyright 2016 The Morning Call 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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