News Column

Social Media Helps Police Get the Word Out

March 11, 2013

Veronica Gonzalez

When Officer Trey Beveridge found out about a rash of burglaries in Western Branch and Deep Creek, he told the neighbors.

In 15 surrounding communities.

Beveridge posted information about the crime spree on Nextdoor.com, a private neighborhood-centered social media platform. Neighbors responded with calls to police to report suspicious people in the area, he said.

The Police Department started using the site a year ago, and it's the only Hampton Roads city using it on that level.

"A nosy neighbor beats an alarm system any day," said police Chief Kelvin Wright. "When you have that ability to drill down to the lowest level of groups -- it's a very tremendous return on your investment."

That's not the only way local police are reaching out to residents in cyberspace.

Last year, the Chesapeake department launched a Facebook page, and last fall, it joined an existing app -- MyPD -- where users can find department contacts, submit crime tips, file a report or commend an officer.

Wright said the app allows the department to send out notifications instantly to those who have downloaded it on their smartphones.

"You have to be able to reach people where they are," he said.

Charlie Ferguson, president of the Miars Plantation Homeowners' Association, was sold on Nextdoor.com after the burglaries in his community. He got his neighbors to join the site.

At first, he said he was concerned about privacy. Then he talked to Beveridge, who explained that police can't check people's personal information.

"When I tried it, I liked it, and I started helping to spread it to Western Branch contacts," Ferguson said. "We can get the word out to people if the police have something relevant to share."

Holly Parker, who lives in Western Branch, said burglars broke into her home and stole family heirloom jewelry. After that, she said she got her neighborhood of 15 homes to join Nextdoor.com to help prevent others from falling victim to what happened to her.

"Apparently, there had been a lot of burglaries prior to mine, and I didn't know," she said. "And I saw somebody suspicious the day my house was robbed. Had I known this was going on, I would have made a phone call to police immediately."

Maj. Stephanie Burch, a deputy chief for Suffolk police, said the department uses Facebook and Twitter to post the latest on crimes, wanted fugitives and crashes. But she said social media remains under-utilized in law enforcement.

"It's a great way to let people know what you're doing," she said. "The media tends to report the things that aren't good. It's a way to promote the things that are good, that are positive in your community -- the initiatives you're doing, new equipment, any of those things."

Last summer, Suffolk police used Twitter to host "Tweet-Alongs" or virtual "ride-alongs" where followers could keep track of an officer during his shift.

Two officers participated, tweeting about arresting people wanted on warrants and National Night Out activities using the handle @SuffolkVaPD. Burch said she would like to do more in the future because it makes officers accessible to the public.

"It introduces people to our staff, and it kind of humanizes what we do and gives people a glimpse into what we do," she said.

Norfolk police, on Facebook since 2011, use the site to promote department initiatives, special events and officers' accomplishments, police spokeswoman Karen Parker-Chesson wrote in an email.

She said friends of the department's Facebook page can share information about wanted suspects and fugitives with their followers. Facebook helps police reach people who might not be involved with neighborhood groups, she said.

Two weeks ago, when the department posted it was seeking a fugitive who didn't report to prison after being convicted of robbery, 50 people shared the post. On Wednesday, the fugitive was apprehended, and the department posted his arrest on the site.

Portsmouth police, on Facebook since 2008 and also on Twitter, said the social media sites reach a broad audience quickly. Their Facebook page has nearly 3,000 "Likes."

Virginia Beach police use Facebook and Twitter, and the traffic division has its own Twitter account, @VBPDTraffic, where it posts traffic tips and updates on DUI checkpoints as well as reminders to choose a designated driver.

"I don't know how many people actually get that when they're out at the bar, but social media -- to a degree -- people are influenced by it," said Colin Mack, an officer who runs the traffic Twitter page. "I hope it makes a little bit of an impact."


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Source: (c) 2013 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) Distributed by MCT Information Services


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