With the rise of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, the prevalence of information has never been higher — and some police departments are using that to their advantage.
Police agencies use social media platforms as an investigation tool, as well as a means to get information out to the public regarding ongoing or emergency situations.
Organizations in Cumberland County are no different. Most agencies maintain a website and social media accounts to connect with the community and share information.
In the last year, social media use has become more frequent among police departments. Whether it’s answering questions from citizens or posting alerts, many departments are using Facebook or Twitter to directly connect with the public.
Nearly 96 percent of police departments use social media in some capacity, according to a recent survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Facebook is the most common site used, followed by Twitter and YouTube.
Connecting with residents
Many local departments use social media to distribute needed information to the community on emergency situations, previous arrests and wanted subjects.
Richard Hammon, Silver Spring Township Police superintendent, said he learned the importance of this service after the crime reporting portion of their website went down, and community members began calling asking where the information was.
“I realized just exactly how much we use it and how much we rely on it,” he said. “It is extremely important to us.”
Upper Allen Township Police Chief James Adams said it is important for police to keep up with the mediums used by the public.
“Social media is here to stay,” he said. “I think it’s very important that we are using the same medium that a significant number of our residents and the community are using. That is where people are nowadays, whether we like it, agree with it, or not, it really doesn’t matter. People are on Facebook and using a lot of social (media) on a regular basis, and I think we have an obligation to keep our residents reasonably informed as far as what is going on in the community.”
In an effort to be more transparent and inform the public of incidents, Michael Hope, chief of the West Shore Regional Police, said it is important the public see that police are doing their jobs.
“A lot of times I think communities really don’t know or don’t pay attention unless it is something that directly affects them,” he said.
Hammon cited a recent incident, that occurred on Monday, involving an SAT scam, and police were able to get information out to parents about the incident.
“Yesterday we had a call from Cumberland Valley High School that somebody was calling a parent about SAT tests,” he said. “It was some kind of scam, saying they would provide information, said they were from the school district and asked for a credit card number. It is certainly something the residents need to know, so that is something that we would put up.”
Adams said the instantaneous access to information is important to alert the public of emergency events, such as the recent snow storms and inclement weather.
Community connecting to police
Hammon said social media is also an important tool for the community to connect to police. He said community members who see photos of unidentified or wanted suspects often call to inform police who the people are and where they can be found, which is helpful in investigations.
Todd Bashore, chief of East Pennsboro Township Police, said while it is another avenue for the community to connect, most tips and problems are reported through face-to-face contact or telephone calls.
But that doesn’t decrease the importance of the medium.
Adams said information relayed from the public can be acted upon in a timely manner, and officers are able to answer questions from the public.
“We get a lot of inquiries, people asking about something they’ve seen, questions about the law, questions about the police department, and we try to be very responsive to those,” he said. “It is a two-way street. It isn’t us just pushing out information to the public, the public also push information to us,” he said.
While most police agencies would not discuss exactly how they use Facebook and social media for investigations, they did say it has great information gathering potential.
The chiefs association found that 86 percent of departments use social media to investigate crimes, 80 percent reported solving a crime with help from social media, and 73 percent said social media have improved communications with their communities.
Police also use social media platforms to help them in investigations, such as information gathering, which can lead to the location of wanted individuals or corroborate information police had already gathered.
“The most recent heroin overdose death that was resolved and people were arrested for delivering the heroin that killed the guy, less than 24 hours later, because of what we could find on Facebook and track those people down,” Hammon said. “Much like you may if you have a Facebook, get a hold of one of your friends and say let’s go downtown and have a sandwich, these people will say let’s go downtown and buy some heroin. The discussions on Facebook certainly lead us to people we are looking for.”
He cited another example from 2010, when a man, Gary Cartwright, killed his fiancee, “and immediately the killer, her boyfriend, went on Twitter and left a message. It was damning information, and he has since been convicted.”
“People go on and just say things, and that leads us many times where we need to go,” Hammon said.
Adams said it is “amazing” what people will post on the Internet, which often leads police to suspects.
“My investigators lots of times have found very valuable clues, criminals posting photographs with stuff they’ve stolen, with drugs, bragging about crimes, all these kinds of things,” he said.
Adams cited a simple DUI case, where the driver refused a chemical test, which is their right, and told police that they had two glasses of wine earlier in the evening.
“But lo-and-behold we find on that subject’s Facebook posting literally an hour before my officer stopped them for DUI, a posting of a photo in a bar in Harrisburg holding a martini in hand,” he said. “It’s not just the big who done ... we get information that bolster our cases, and we use as evidence on a whole litany of different crimes.”
He said using social media is just a piece of the puzzle.
“Our investigations really haven’t changed much,” Adams said. “It is just the medium and the forum that we are using. All the social media and our investigations online doesn’t take away from good old fashion police work. But instead of going and knocking on doors, talking to the people and getting info that way, we’ve now added another component of going on the Internet to various social networking sites and conducting investigations there and in essence collecting information.”
Bashore said social media is a great way to track down wanted suspects.
“We have communicated with people, they have some ways that they communicate with people through Facebook, and that is how we have located a lot of people,” he said. “That’s how investigations happen. You use little parts of different things to solve crimes, and that is a small part of it. There are tools they use in their tool box they use to solve stuff.”