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The Suburbanite
  • Police use Facebook 'fans' to help fight crime

  • More and more police are finding success in crime-solving as they turn to their communities through social media.

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  • Roadside sobriety-test videos, jailhouse mugshots, lost dogs and even a police chief’s latest rant against criminals increasingly are drawing Facebook fans across the nation to police department Facebook pages.
    More importantly, police say their fans are helping solve crime.
    The International Association of Chiefs of Police has hailed social media as a crime-fighting tool, and many police departments nationwide use it.
    The association’s Center for Social Media, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, surveyed 600 law-enforcement agencies in August.
    The results on its website (www.iacpsocialmedia.org) show that 92 percent use social media, and 77 percent of them use it for criminal investigations.
    Nearly 75 percent say the new technology has helped them solve crimes.
    On Jan. 1, the center’s website featured the Brimfield Police Department, touting the department’s use of Facebook and Twitter. Brimfield is just north of the Stark County line.
    Brimfield police’s Facebook page features everything from missing children, lost dogs and jail booking photos, to community events and videos of robberies in progress. “Fans” can even submit a tip.
    Most popular, however, are Chief David Oliver’s updates and letters.
    For example, the Jan. 4 letter he wrote “To thieves” about their “rough morning” at a Walmart contains a tongue-in-cheek account of their baggie-pants attempt to outrun a failed shoplifting incident. The letter garnered 6,268 “likes” in fewer than three days. The Facebook page itself had more than 27,000 “likes” by Jan. 18. (A Facebook “like” is a way you enjoy the website.)
    In Stark County, Alliance police appear to have a popular police Facebook page with more than 9,000 “likes.” On a page where “all suspects are innocent until proven guilty,” and all of the photos are public record by Ohio law, fans can see jail photos, stolen vehicles, lost dogs, robberies in progress, firefighters blasting water on burning structures and even a 14-second video of a turtle.
    Shortly after they first began their Facebook page, Alliance police credited Facebook fans in December 2011 with the arrest of three teenagers after a local church was burglarized. One of the teens had posted on her Facebook page that the stolen Jesus statue was “just chillin’ in the back yard” of a neighbor’s home.
    SOCIAL MEDIA DRAMA
    But the department’s forays into cyberspace also have drawn the ire of attorneys representing arrested suspects.
    Attorney Michael Boske filed a motion in April to keep his client’s arrest information off the police Facebook page, saying the posting denied his client a fair trial.
    “They were making an arrest and immediately putting that information on their Facebook page without a conviction. His face was plastered all over the page and he hadn’t even gone to court,” Boske said.
    Page 2 of 3 - Charged with misdemeanor drunken driving, his client later pleaded “no contest” to reduced charges of failure to maintain physical control of a vehicle and having no rear license plate illumination. The court rendered the motion moot.
    But the Police Department noticed.
    On its Facebook page Jan. 1, police told fans, “We’ve slacked off on our page because of all the ridiculous drama associated with it.” They then asked fans what they were most interested in — arrests, crime trends, upcoming events, lost pets, convictions or city news. The 22 comments that followed were overwhelmingly positive and direct — the department’s Facebook fans want to see everything.
    Boske said he doesn’t deny Facebook’s effectiveness.
    “I absolutely think it’s fair game once (a person is) convicted,” he said. “I absolutely think it’s a good resource for them to use. Technology’s great. But it depends on how you use it.”
    Hartville Police do not have a Facebook page.
    Chief Lawrence Dordea explained: “I’ve seen a number of those Facebook sites utilized by police departments that had to step up and recant what was put on there.” Dordea said, occasionally information initially supplied to police later proves inaccurate. Yet, when placed on Facebook, it tends to look like a news release.
    “It’s somewhat official,” he said. “It’s a site known to represent the views of the police department. It’s also something that you have to manage and monitor at all times. You have to filter things and you have to be careful who is inputting it at your end. It’s a balancing act, which is why we don’t do it. I don’t have the time to devote to setting up and monitoring a Facebook page.”
    Still, he said, he and other officers use personal accounts to gather information.
    FACEBOOK CRIME-FIGHTING
    So do Uniontown Police Chief Harold Britt and his officers. The department had to remove its Facebook page last year when the Ohio Supreme Court ruled as invalid a voter-approved police levy evolving the Uniontown Police Department into the townshipwide Lake Township Police Department. Township trustees insisted the police Facebook page be removed, despite its already having helped solve a burglary.
    Then Britt became a crime victim. He turned to Facebook again — via his personal account.
    Dragged through a Marc’s store parking lot by theft suspects intent on escaping, Britt snapped photos on his cellphone. He placed them on his Facebook account.
    “Marlboro police picked up on it and put it on their Facebook page. A Kent officer saw it,” Britt recalled. “He knew who the guy was.” Kent police had arrested the suspect before.
    Britt said he is seeking the trustees’ approval to establish a new Uniontown Police Department Facebook page.
    Page 3 of 3 - “We are well aware of the benefits of it. We know it works,” he said. “Anything we would put on there would be public record. This type of social media is a valuable tool. It seems like every high school kid is on Facebook, Twitter or something like that.” So vital public information can spread fast.
    Massillon Police Sgt. Brian Muntean also knows the value of asking for help online.
    “The key point is you just need one person to see one thing and, when you have that many people watching it, (the flow of information) tends to happen very often,” Muntean said.
    FACEBOOK FANS HELP FAST
    Muntean oversees his department’s Facebook page, which boasts around 6,000 fans. That fan base grows when fans share the information with other friends, who in turn, share the information with even more friends. And fans are quick to help.
    Not long ago, when a mother-daughter team distracted a Marc’s store customer long enough to steal her money, Muntean put onto the police Facebook page a still-image of the store video capturing the incident.
    “When I hit the ‘submit’ key to post it, it wasn’t even 30 seconds before a lady called the Police Department and said, ‘I know exactly who it is. It’s my neighbor and her daughter.’”
    Muntean said that after further investigation, the duo was arrested.
    “We get a lot of cases where you would never ever be able to solve them, ever. There is very little suspect information and no one saw anything... We would never know who these people were,” Muntean said.
    In another instance, after officers simply could not locate a young man wanted on a misdemeanor obstructing official business warrant, Muntean posted his photo.
    “Not even a day later, I walked out into the lobby and there was this woman who’s standing there and she’s got this young man by the collar,” Muntean said. “I thought it was a domestic violence case. Then she said, ‘No, this is my son and I saw him on Facebook.’ She said she was embarrassed and she dragged him down to the police station.”
    And then, Muntean recalled, there was a woman who walked out of a Walmart with a 50-inch TV in her cart — without paying.
    Armed with very little information other than store video, he posted her picture on Facebook, asking fans whether anyone knew her.
    A few hours later, a woman in her 60s responded. She explained that she cares for an elderly woman in a Canton home where she’d seen 12 empty large-screen TV boxes and no TVs, Muntean said.
     “Again, we would never know who these (people) are if it weren’t for Facebook.”