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Some Hanover-Adams police embracing social media

Written by Nicole Chynoweth, The Evening Sun | Mar 8, 2016 10:00 PM
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Not even the FBI could crack it.

The blurry image of a logo on a Santander Bank robbery suspect's blue baseball cap stumped law enforcement in June 2014, said Sgt. Toby Wildasin of West Manheim Township Police Department. They even sought help from the FBI as they tried to pinpoint the hat's manufacturer, which could help them identify the man.

On a whim, Wildasin posted a photo of the suspect on the police department's Facebook page. Maybe one of their followers would recognize the logo.

Five people did, identifying the design as that of Lancaster Archery Supply.That information turned into a critical lead, Wildasin said, because the company had sold only eight similar hats nationwide. After serving a search warrant for the sales records, they easily determined the bank robber's identity and made an arrest.

The story is one of several major successes West Manheim Township police have found in using social media in criminal investigations.

As Facebook and Twitter continue to increase in popularity, law enforcement agencies are signing up for the social media channels to disseminate information, seek the public's help in solving crimes and interact with their communities.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police conducts an annual social media survey, asking officers all over the country about how they use social media. According to the 2015 report, 85.5 percent of the participating agencies say using social media helped them solve crimes.

"There's been an overwhelmingly awesome response from the public," Wildasin said. "I have not kept statistics on it. I wish I had. I'm starting to, but unofficially I'd say it's probably increased our solvability rate by over 50 percent."

An investigative tool

If the association's survey is any indication, social media has been a game-changer for police work. It found that 87.7 percent of agencies are using social media for crime investigations. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are listed as the most commonly used platforms.

West Manheim and Penn Township police departments, as well as Adams County Crime Stoppers and the Carroll County Sheriff's Office are some of the Hanover-Adams region agencies turning to Facebook for investigative purposes.

Prior to using social media, West Manheim Police, like many other departments, sought leads on foot or by cold-calling people. They reached out to the media and used a messaging system called Nixle to send text message and email alerts to people who registered for the service.

"We saw how social media became very popular, particularly with the young crowd, and we kind of saw the need in the future that, if we wanted to stay progressive and in touch with the up-and-coming kids, that social media was going to be the way to do that," Wildasin said.

The Carroll County Sheriff's Department had a Facebook page for a while but really didn't do much with it aside from using it as a recruiting tool, said Cpl. Jonathan Light. Today they use the page, as well as a Twitter account, more frequently to share information.

"Nationally you see agencies getting a good response from the community," he said. "(Social media) allows interaction between the agency and community in a much more direct way and allows us to get information out in a timely fashion. When it becomes available to us, we can get it immediately out to the public."

Trooper Nate Hartlaub of Pennsylvania State Police in Gettysburg, handles the Adams County Crime Stoppers social media. In his experience, people seem more forthcoming with information on social media than they are going to a police department to speak to an officer or calling a tips hotline. Oftentimes people message the Crime Stopper's page with tips and decline the reward the group offers.

One time, Crime Stoppers posted a surveillance footage image of a woman suspected of stealing money from a local fruit stand. Hartlaub said the woman was so embarrassed after seeing the photo online that she went to the police barracks and turned herself in.

Wildasin agrees that people are willing to say things on social media that they wouldn't normally say face-to-face with someone.

"I've seen a desire in people to want to help the police department and their own community, knowing that somebody has violated the community's rights and are willing to help the police resolve that if they think they know who somebody is," he said.

Connecting with the community 

The association's survey revealed 83.5 percent of participating police departments reported that using social media has improved their relations with the community.

In recent years, numerous events have sparked national criticism of police, so for Wildasin, social media is one way to dispel that negative light cast on law enforcement.

West Manheim often posts photos and videos from community events officers attend. One of those videos, for example, shows Wildasin dancing to Pharrell Williams' catchy hit "Happy" with students at an elementary school assembly.

"It's been our own small way of combating that negative image that I'll say quite honestly has been improperly portrayed with law enforcement throughout the nation," he said. "I think people see maybe a more personal side of us."

By sprinkling humorous memes and photos throughout their typical police work posts, West Manheim has attracted more and more followers. Their wildly popular Elf on the Shelf, Sarge, brought comic relief throughout the holiday season in 2014 and 2015. Wildasin posed the plush Christmas helper in amusing scenes throughout the police department building, such as Sarge zip-lining across a cubical or photographing a crime scene. The little guy went viral as news outlets across the country learned about the elvish officer.

Penn Township Police Department's Lt. Guy Hettinger said his department receives comments from people all over the country, especially when they post things that aren't necessarily localized, like tips for safe trick-or-treating and driving in the snow.

"We try to do a variety of things other than just law enforcement," he said.

After the shooting happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, area schools received threats. West Manheim officers spent more time than usual at the schools as an extra security measures, but they didn't want parents to see more police vehicles at the school and become alarmed. Wildasin posted about it on Facebook, and teachers and parents alike posted comments to show their gratitude for the heads-up.

"We get that immediate response back when we try something new or different (on social media)," he said. "We get that positive reinforcement that people appreciate we're doing that."

Dealing with trolls, legal concerns

Social media isn't without its downsides for police departments.

Wildasin said some departments have been forced to delete their accounts because of "trolling," which is the act of posting deliberately offensive material online in order to get a rise out of another person or organization.

Although West Manheim hasn't dealt with anything too severe, sometimes the page receives comments criticizing the type of crime the department is investigating, such as arrests related to marijuana possession.

"People can say what they want," he said. "We are a government agency. I don't mind a healthy discussion if people have it on our Facebook page. We typically are not going to get involved in that discussion. Our issue is whether something is legal or illegal. We're not tasked with making legislation. We're tasked with enforcement."

Hettinger said one downside to using Facebook is that a page can be easily mistaken for another department's page when they share the same location name. His department experienced a bit of a Facebook fiasco in January when a constable shot a man during an apartment eviction in another Penn Township, and the bullet fatally wounded the man's 12-year-old daughter.

A news outlet found Penn Township Police Department's Facebook page and erroneously used its profile picture, its police badge image, in a story.

"We actually got some hate posts on our Facebook from people thinking we were that Penn Township that was listed in the news," Hettinger said. They responded with a post explaining that it was a different Penn Township that was involved.

There's a learning curve for police when it comes to navigating the best practices for social media, Wildasin said. In addition to facing the pitfalls of figuring out how to use social media, police also face challenges in having accounts in the first place.

Departments have to carefully weigh the reasons to post or not to post information, such as arrest photos, Wildasin said.

"We will choose photos where we feel the crime is pertinent to the community knowing. The community has a right to know because of either the severity of the crime or the impact the crime would have on the community," he said. "We find sometimes those types of postings create negativity from people, kind of that lynch mob mentality, which is not what we're going for, and then that starts the threats towards people. We try to monitor that as much as possible."

Police also have to make sure a post won't jeopardize the prosecution of a case, Wildasin said.

"That's always been our concern, and that's a big challenge - even on a typical arrest, releasing information that we feel the community and the public has a right to know but yet balancing that with a person's right to be determined innocent until they're proven guilty in court," he said.

A bit of a double-edged sword of social media is that while police are able to get out information as quickly as possible, so is the rest of the world, he explained. Police are held to a higher standard, he said, so accuracy and timeliness are key.

It's a matter of getting "out in front of" the information that's being circulated online, he said.

"In years past, how many times did police departments say no comment? Those days are over."

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between The Evening Sun and WITF. 

Published in Adams County, News

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