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Utah police are solving crimes through social media

Posting surveillance video and inviting public interaction grow as tools for combating crime.

First Published Jun 25 2014 08:58 am • Last Updated Jul 07 2014 02:52 pm

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Along with cute kittens, biting babies and rap remixes, YouTube channel surfers can expect, now more than ever, to see videos of crimes posted by police departments.

Two YouTube videos posted to the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Twitter account last week highlight the way the department is using social media to enlist the public’s assistance in solving crimes.

In one of the surveillance videos, a young man carrying a skateboard smashes the window of Cafe Expresso at 902 S. 1100 East and grabs bagels and coffee beans.

The other video shows a man in a blue and white striped shirt park his bicycle next to the office of PPBH at 1706 S. Major St. (60 East). The man enters the business and emerges moments later with a guitar. He then glances over his shoulder and flees.

Police hope that by distributing the videos through social media, residents will recognize the suspects and help detectives apprehend them.

It’s a strategy that has gained favor among police departments across the country. More than 95 percent are using social media, to some degree, and four in five say those outlets have helped them solve crimes, according to a recent study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Capt. Doug Nolte of the Wichita Police Department travels nationwide training police officers on the ins and outs of social media. Nolte was in Sandy recently, helping the Draper Police Department send its first tweet.

Even if most police departments are using social media, many of them are not using the tool effectively, Nolte said. He offered the example of a police department in Utah that had a Facebook page but had not responded to several comments that had been posted there.

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"Everyone in law enforcement says they’re using social media," Nolte said. "But really what it comes down to is: Are you using it effectively, or are you just checking the box?"

Nolte noted that social media can help law enforcement build closer ties with the community, which, in turn, can help solve crimes. But social media’s power to broadcast police behavior to the world has also forced a greater self-awareness upon officers.

"It’s kind of the elephant in the room for law enforcement," Nolte said. "We don’t want there to be anything that’s overtly negative. We want to be seen as professionals, but the business that we do is inherently dangerous and it’s oftentimes messy."

That presents police with unprecedented public relations challenges. When, for example, a Salt Lake City police officer shot a dog on private property while searching for a 3-year-old boy this month, the public turned to the Internet to express its outrage.

"We need to understand that social media is going to put light on things that 10 years ago wouldn’t have made the light of day," Nolte said. "In law enforcement, we’re going to see more situations where stuff like that comes up."

If social media forums have ushered in an era of greater transparency, they also have brought less-centralized control, said Lauri Stevens, founder of Massachusetts-based LAwS Communications, a social media consultancy that works exclusively with law enforcement.

Some police departments have been slow to adapt, she said, but they resist change at their peril.

"Law enforcement is very hierarchical, top-down command. Social media is about giving up control, and it’s very difficult for law enforcement to give that up," Stevens said. "It’s really counter to police culture to do social media and do it well."

But if law enforcement can overcome those cultural roadblocks, social media may hold tremendous crime-solving potential. A recent study by Accenture found that 88 percent of residents want to help cops prevent and fight crime, but that police are failing to effectively enlist public support.

"People want to help solve crimes, but they’re busy people," Stevens said. "You have to make it easy for them."

To that end,John Harvey, deputy director of the Ogden Police Department, has for decades been developing computer systems designed to make it as easy as possible for the public to work with police in solving crimes.

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