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Police Agencies Turn To Social Media For Outreach

Composite Image by Dave Lucas

Police agencies across New York are increasingly turning to social media to assist in law enforcement and to kick public outreach up a notch.

The men and women in blue now employ the internet in their quest to maintain law and order.  An online presence affords unique opportunities to solve crimes and provide public services: some departments use websites, others use apps, many have Twitter and Facebook accounts, taking full advantage of the modern technology many people often carry in their pockets.

Watervliet Police Chief Mark Spain says when he became acting chief he awakened the department's underused Facebook page from dormancy, updating the community on police matters on a daily basis.  "It really caught fire. And then we kind of expanded it to Twitter, and then we enhanced it a little bit more and we pointed people back to the webpage, which we hadn't updated or kept up to date with it. We added some things that people normally make their way to the police department to fill out forms for property checks or handicap permit renewals and things like that. So we wanted to make it a little easier on them and gave them the arena on the webpage to fill those forms out online and they automatically get emailed to the police department."

In Albany, a city of about 100,000 people, police spokesman Steve Smith says the department has more than 25,000 "likes" on its interactive Facebook page.  "We've had people send anonymous tips that have helped out in investigations. We've also been able to simply provide advice to people via Facebook messenger."

APD also uses a service called Nixle.   "It's a web-based service that's provided at no cost to police, fire and EMS across the United States, so we took advantage of it. It's a great service that allows us to send information out to subscribers here in the city of Albany about emerging incidents, road closures. Anything that we want to get out to the community. Even if it's a community event. We can get that information out to them via text message, or through email."

Smith adds Nixle can be used to send out snow emergency notifications as well as target specific city neighborhoods.  "Every 28 days we put out a beat report. We have 33 beats all across the city. People can go right on albanyny.gov website. They can click on Nixle. All they need to do is simply enter their address. Click on the map and they enter their cell phone number and email and we can start sending them information."

Just about everywhere you go, people are checking their smartphones. So is Chief Spain back in Watervliet.    "We're a small community. 10,000 people. 1.3 square miles. So it's controllable, it's manageable. I carry my phone with me all the time. So even if somebody comments on our Facebook page it comes right up on my phone so I can back to them right away. We subscribe to the philosophy that the community are the police and the police are the community and this is a way for us to keep in touch with the community and make sure that they know what we're doing and if they need us at any point in time they have another manner to get a hold of us."

Spain adds the department plans to hold Facebook live sessions akin to a having a community meeting, but in this case people can check in from wherever they are.

A 2013 social media survey commissioned by the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that 96 percent of police departments use social media, and 73 percent say it helped improve police-community relationships in their jurisdiction.  

The Washington Post reports that local police departments across the country have collectively spent about $4.75 million on social media surveillance tools like Media Sonar, X1 Social Discovery and Geofeedia, with which departments are able to monitor pockets of activism within their jurisdiction.

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