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Police embrace opportunities, and challenges, of social media

DICKINSON, N.D. – The Bismarck Police Department had been on Facebook for only about a week when the agency sent out the first of many posts asking the public for help identifying a suspect.

Police were seeking a man who had caused $2,000 worth of damage to an ATM about a week before. All they had was a video and a number to call with tips.

“I think we had him identified within five minutes,” Lt. Steve Scheuer said.

“We had 13,700 people that we reached with it,” said his colleague, Officer Lynn Wanner. “He was identified very, very quickly just by sharing it.”

Police never could have found the suspect as quickly without the aid of Facebook, Wanner added.

This is law enforcement in the age of social media: Facebook turned 10 this year, and Twitter is 8 years old. Police departments across North Dakota are hopping on the bandwagon more than ever, using the platforms for anything from safety tips to investigations.

Law enforcement agencies nationally and internationally have been exploring the possibilities of social media since about 2009, said Lauri Stevens, a Boston-based social media strategist for law enforcement, but things didn’t really pick up until about 2011.

“I think it’s still on the upswing,” she said. “It’s definitely picking up speed, and picking up in sophistication of use.”

Almost 96 percent of law enforcement agencies use some form of social media, according to a 2013 survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Center for Social Media; that’s up from 81 percent in 2010.

Stevens said that after initial resistance toward nontraditional platforms like Twitter and Facebook – some agencies have even embraced the photo-blogging app Instagram – police are coming around to the depth and possibilities of social media.

Building relationships

Wanner recently attended a Social Media, the Internet and Law Enforcement, or SMILE, conference hosted by Stevens. Bismarck police have been on Facebook only since April, relative latecomers to the world of social networking; they haven’t yet ventured into Twitter territory.

“As far as kind of jumping in and getting it set up, we wanted to make sure we didn’t rush into it,” Scheuer said of the agency’s Facebook page, which has more than 1,600 likes. “We just wanted to make sure we get the right message out.”

With few precedents set for how to navigate the mostly uncharted territory of social media, it’s up to individual departments to explore the various uses themselves.

Dickinson police Capt. David Wilkie, who runs the department’s Facebook and Twitter, said he uses the sites primarily to issue safety reminders and answer questions from the community.

As a social user in his personal life, he said he realized what social media could do for the police department only after he posted a report to Facebook about a missing juvenile, drawing in almost 2,000 views in just 30 minutes.

“It had hits all across the state, all across the region,” he said. “It’s astounding how many people that reached and what little effort it took to reach people.”

In many ways, social media provide a more direct connection to the public. While departments in larger cities might be leading the way in terms of sophistication, smaller departments excel at building relationships with the community via social media channels, Stevens said.

“(Facebook) gives us the opportunity to speak with people on a one-to-one basis,” Wilkie said. “We try to answer all the questions and comments addressed to us.”

Lt. Joel Vettel, who acts as public information officer for the Fargo Police Department, said his agency has been using Facebook for about two years, and Twitter for about nine months.

It has become a more proactive way of distributing information the department feels is important for the public to know, Vettel said.

“We’ve tried to push, even get away from doing standardized press releases,” he said, noting that he will often post news first to his social media sites as a way to get people to the department’s page more often.

The agency has more than 7,000 followers across the two platforms, creating easy access to the community, and vice versa.

‘A life of its own’

The intimacy and immediacy afforded by social media aren’t without challenges, though, especially in small towns where rumors can spread quickly even without the help of “likes” and “shares.”

Police have an increased responsibility to be transparent and stay ahead of the rumor mill that forms alongside any big news event, Vettel said.

When a Fargo police lieutenant took his own life in March, Vettel said he used the department’s Facebook and Twitter pages to communicate with the public about the incident – not only to share the news, but also to “dispel some of the rumors that existed.”

“The Internet is so anonymous; people are willing to say things that are far more extreme,” he said.

Local Facebook pages, such as Confessions of Dickinson and Dickinson, ND Online Rummage Sale, have become breeding grounds for false information and rumors.

“It gains a life of its own,” Dickinson Police Chief Dustin Dassinger said.

That was no more apparent than when the department’s SWAT team recently searched a neighborhood for a suspect who an officer later shot and killed. The incident attracted a flurry of what Wilkie called “street lawyers” leading discussions over the legality of the home searches.

Dassinger said the department avoids getting involved in bashing and bantering sessions that take place across Facebook, especially those that occur away from the Dickinson police page.

“When we’re doing an investigation, we’re not really looking at what’s being posted on social media,” he said. “We utilize social media for distributing information rather than receiving it.”

Stevens said commentary on social media can get in the way of investigations. She pointed to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing as an example of when police weren’t ready for the “onslaught of intelligence coming their way” through social media channels. The Boston Police Department was later lauded for its use of Facebook and Twitter to communicate with the public about the investigation and keep a handle on rampant rumors.

Even with the challenges associated, social media will continue to be a part of day-to-day police operations, Stevens said.

“We haven’t even scratched the surface with deep techniques and strategy,” she said.

It remains to be seen how law enforcement officers will use the technology for investigations and public outreach – or what new uses they might find.

Vettel said law enforcement officials have to embrace both the opportunities and challenges provided by social media, especially in today’s 24-hour cycle of constant news.

“We have to continue to move forward,” he said. “Part of that is the technology piece, and part of that is social media.

“It’s still just a tool,” he said. “You have to utilize it and see if it’s the right tool for the job, and use it in an appropriate manner.”