SFPD uses Facebook for community alerts, info
May 7, 2010 8:34 PM
Police officers can usually be seen driving patrol cars, riding bikes, walking beats or even riding horses. But now, officers from the San Francisco Police Department can also be found updating their department's Facebook and Twitter pages.
The SFPD Media Relations office entered into the world of social networking in February, creating Facebook and Twitter profiles for the department to disseminate information to the online community about crimes, town hall meetings and other issues. Users who "follow" or "friend" the profiles can leave comments for officers and get updates sent directly to their accounts.
"Everyone has access to YouTube and Facebook and Twitter, and everybody texts and all that stuff," said SFPD spokesman Officer Albie Esparza. "So I think it's a good way for our department to kind of open up to the younger crowd that is more computer-savvy."
As of May 7, the department had 1,946 Facebook fans and 1,904 Twitter followers. The SFPD YouTube channel, used to share videos of press conferences and other footage, had 45,870 video views.
The SFPD isn't the only law enforcement agency to use online networks. Departments in Philadelphia, Houston and Chicago each have a Facebook or Twitter account. Even the FBI has joined in.
"A lot of people log on to Facebook a lot more than they would log on to our department's website, so it's great," Esparza said. As a police spokesman, Esparza has started promoting the websites during televised press statements.
"For example, if I gave an interview regarding an incident of a bank robbery I would say, 'If anyone has any information, they can give us a call at our confidential tip line or they can send us a comment via Facebook or Twitter.' It is an additional tool that we have in case anyone wants to talk to the police directly."
Officer Samson Chan, SFPD spokesman, is one of a handful of Media Relations officers who update and monitor the department's social networking pages. He said the Facebook page receives the most views and comments, some of which officers address directly.
"Recently we put up a crime bulletin about a serial bank robber who was putting a knife up to people's necks while robbing the banks," Chan said. "We put that up there so people know what's going on, and if they have any information they can contact us."
Since that posting, a suspect in the robberies has been taken into custody. A follow-up about the arrest was met with dozens of comments, mostly congratulatory. One user wrote, "Awesome catch!!" another, "They don't catch the smart ones."
Chan said no crimes have yet been solved through tips made over Facebook.
"To get a tip, that would be very nice," he said. "I would say that would make it very rewarding. But even without getting a tip, I think it's still worthwhile because we're letting the public know what's going on in the city."
Emily Holtz, a 27-year-old business major , said she wasn't aware of SFPD's move to social networking but that after hearing about it, she probably wouldn't use it as a resource. Holtz only uses Facebook to keep in touch with friends. "And I'm not friends with the police department. No offense."
Holtz, who lived in San Francisco but recently moved to Emeryville, checks crime statistics when moving to a new neighborhood. She has used SFPD's official website for such information in the past, "but that's sort of it," she said. "I guess I'm not really too engaged in what's going on either here or there."
Rex Swindlehurst, a 23-year-old psychology major at SF State who has worked for the Santa Barbara Police Department, said he thinks that law enforcement agencies' participation in online communities could be a positive move.
"If it's for public relations and for tips, then it's fine," he said. "I feel that any connection with the public that a police department has is usually a beneficial one, but if it's more of a Big Brother, '1984'-type status, then it's definitely not a good thing."
Chan said that while he can't speak to whether or not police investigators use social networking for law enforcement, the Media Relations office uses such sites explicitly to share information, not to monitor peoples' online activity.
"We do absolutely no investigation of any of our fans," he said, chuckling. "I think your average Joe would think about that too, but this fan page is managed by our Media Relations unit and our job is just to get information out to the public."
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