Last month, when Snapchat rolled out a new feature that automatically shared users’ locations on a map, alarm bells went off for Heyworth Police Chief Mike Geriets.
That kind of real-time location information is a gold mine for potential thieves or stalkers. So he posted a warning for parents on the Heyworth Police Department’s Facebook page, hoping to alert his 1,820 fans to the dangers of the new feature.
The post went viral. It’s reached 756,000 people since June 23 and been shared 9,000 times, including by many other police departments in Central Illinois.
“Communication with people in the community is part of our community partnership,” Geriets told GLT. “What better way to do it (than Facebook)? How else am I going to get word out to these people? This is an instant thing.”
Big-city police departments have made headlines for their savvy social media strategy that’s increased the reach of their messaging. Notably, they’ve also made people laugh, often enough that there’s a 34 Times Police Departments Won At Social Media listicle.
But for small-town police departments like Heyworth, Chenoa, or LeRoy here in McLean County, there’s no full-time media relations or public affairs officer to run official social media accounts. That leaves the job to police chiefs like Geriets, who add “content strategist” to their full-time duties protecting and serving their small communities.
Not every post goes viral like Heyworth’s Snapchat warning. More often, these Facebook pages serve as online neighborhood watches of sorts. Police share information about lost dogs or call out small-time criminals who’ve been cuffed. They share safety tips, or ask for the public’s help finding pesky vandals.
“We use Facebook as a way to connect with the community, keep them up to date with some things going on, and put information out there that may be important to them,” said Chenoa Police Chief Travis Cornwall, who has 10- full and part-time officers.
Chenoa has around 1,700 residents and 1,700 fans on Facebook. While some of those Facebook fans may be from out-of-town, probably more than half live in Chenoa, Cornwall said. (His department also provides police service to Gridley.)
Chenoa’s Facebook page features a mix of weekly arrest summaries—like you’d see in an old newspaper’s police blotter—and more playful content, like a photo of an officer’s radar gun after pulling over someone for flying through town driving over 100 mph.
It’s not just information. It can also close cases.
After a recent hit-and-run, Chenoa police were able to identify the make and model of the suspect’s car, but not the driver. Two weeks after posting that car’s description to Facebook, someone called Chenoa police and said they spotted it at a body shop.
“We were able to solve a hit-and-run I don’t we’d have been able to without help from the public,” Cornwall said.
With emerging technology come new ethical questions. Chenoa posts weekly arrest summaries, but Heyworth doesn’t. For Chenoa, it makes that information more accessible to the public, Cornwall said. For Heyworth, that’s going one step too far, Geriets said.
“I’m not going to sit here and try to judge (people) and throw them under the bus on social media,” Geriets said. "They’re going to face the music in the courts. I don’t feel it’s part of my job to punish them.”
Departments like to have some fun too. After someone accidentally dropped their baggies of cocaine at a Chenoa gas station, the police Facebook page posted a hilarious lost-and-found appeal asking for the owner to come and claim their property.
It was shared nearly 1,800 times.
“We made light of it while also making people aware of the kinds of stuff that may come through town on the highway so they know what to look out for,” Cornwall said.
Nearly all police departments use social media in some capacity, according to research from the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Most often, cops use social media to notifying the public of safety concerns or for community outreach and engagement. Indeed, Bloomington and Normal police departments have very active accounts.
Yet in small towns, where daily newspapers aren’t chronicling public safety like they used to, social media can bring tight-knit communities even closer together.
“If we find a dog, I can take a picture of that dog, and it’s immediately on Facebook. Usually within an hour, we usually have somebody contacting us who claims to be the owner,” Geriets said. “It’s an amazing way of reaching a lot of people in a short amount of time.”
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