Bridgeville, Brentwood, West Mifflin among police putting social media to work
The pothole was close and yet, elusive.
"Let's play 'where's that pothole?'" read a post on Bridgeville Police Department's Facebook page, featuring a gaping, gray-black hole, so ubiquitous on Western Pennsylvania roads after the winter thaw.
The post last month generated 28 shares — a wave of response for this police department in a town of 5,000 about eight miles southwest of Pittsburgh. In an age where local news can go worldwide, Bridgeville and other law enforcement agencies in Western Pennsylvania are harnessing social media to engage, inform and solve crimes.
"I've always been the type of person who likes to talk to people in the community, and this is just taking it one step further," said Bridgeville police Chief Chad King, known for his lively online presence as the voice behind the police department.
He challenged residents to name the approximate location of the pothole. The prize: a can of "instant tire repair."
The levity is part of a calculated approach.
"We deal with people on the worst days of their lives, but for the most part, we wanted to take control and engage the community," King said.
With more than 2 billion users, Facebook has proved an unlikely boon to municipal police departments that cannot send officers out searching for everyone wanted on a warrant.
Last October, King called out a suspect on Facebook who was wanted on charges that she sold fentanyl that killed a man the year prior.
"Let's end this foolishness, do the right thing and turn yourself in," King posted on Facebook at the time. "WE WILL FIND YOU." Users shared the post more than 8,700 times.
The suspect turned herself in.
The department has solved about five major felonies after information was posted on Facebook, King said.
Across the country, most of the 540 law enforcement agencies in 48 states surveyed in 2016 as part of an International Chiefs of Police Association report used social media to notify the public about safety concerns, and for community outreach.
A federal task force convened by then-President Barack Obama in 2015 to develop best practices for police recommended that law enforcement agencies across the country adopt policies for using social media.
In Western Pennsylvania, agencies vary in approach: Sometimes the chief handles social channels, and other times, a dedicated employee, and others use Crimewatch, a platform that pushes notifications to social channels and an app.
For example, photos of wanted suspects and information are pushed to a user's phone, based on ZIP code. About 140 law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania use Crimewatch Technologies Inc., said M.W. Bloom, founder, and CEO of the Carlisle-based company.
"We want to make sure that any data the police departments are putting out there is done in a way that helps the public," Bloom said.
The cost: 25 cents per citizen per year. "We try to make it attainable for departments. There is no advertising on the site. We want to make sure this is a tool for the public, not cat memes," Bloom said.
If someone enters the state's so-called first-time offender program, or they are found not guilty, they can request to have their photo and name removed from the platform, he said.
In West Mifflin, IT coordinator Andy Quayle is at the ready to post any information that may be useful to the public or to generate tips about crime.
"The idea is to engage the community as much as possible and to keep them engaged, and that way when we are looking for feedback we can get it," he said.
Case in point: When seeking tips, Quayle said they've had "a number of cases where people are ID'd within a couple of hours."
Last summer the public acted swiftly when the department put out the call for a then-unidentified man suspected of indecent assault while standing in line for the Log Jammer at Kennywood Park in West Mifflin.
The public flooded the department with tips about the man, who was quickly identified.
Sometimes, those identified as persons of interest even comment.
"We've had people say, 'hey, I'm on Facebook, why am I on here,'" Quayle said.
As soon as the person is in custody, Quayle said, they remove the person's picture from the department's website and Facebook page.
People turn to West Mifflin Police Department's Facebook and website, similarly, to find out what is happening in the community, such as any changes in road conditions, he said.
In Brentwood, Chief Adam Zeppuhar says the department's use of Facebook has helped close crimes and reunite dogs with their owners. And it's led to at least two arrests, he said.
All of the officials say they use discretion when choosing what to publicize — keenly aware of the viral nature of Facebook.
For example, Zeppuhar doesn't publicize crimes in which it might be easy to identify the victim. In West Mifflin, if there's a video of a person of interest, Quayle said they're careful to make clear the person is not charged.
And Zeppuhar emphasizes that while the public can interact with the police via Facebook and Crimewatch, it's no substitute for 911.
"If you think your neighbor is selling drugs, call 911 or go into the station,' he said.
Kimberly Palmiero is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.