Social media helping Smyrna Police crack cases

Smyrna Police Department Cpl. Brian Donner reviews an agency social media page last week. “We are now at a point where we can post something to our social media account, and almost expect to begin receiving help within minutes. We do not take this for granted,” Cpl. Donner said. (Submitted photo/Smyrna Police Department)

SMYRNA — How’s this for a vast and quick public reach?

Working a time-sensitive case recently, Smyrna Police requested the public’s assistance through social media.

Within 42 minutes, the post was shared over 1,600 times. By two hours, 70,000 people had viewed/interacted with the post.

The northern Kent County law enforcement agency says Facebook has the largest number of followers, but an active @SmyrnaPD Twitter account produces results too.

“In addition, we are always exploring new avenues to connect with our public,” said Smyrna public information officer Cpl. Brian Donner.

Facebook tips arrive daily, along with “countless” likes, comments and shares, police said,

While Cpl. Donner is primarily responsible for maintaining and checking accounts daily, he said “Our command staff also has access to all of our accounts and can check and maintain them.”

Like calls to the dispatch center, private message tips through social media are received and treated as an anonymous source.

Based on the situation, police may reach out to learn more from their source of contact.

“Depending upon the nature of the case, and the information being shared, we may ask the tipster for clarification or follow up,” Cpl. Donner said.

“We are always careful to let folks know that they absolutely can remain anonymous and refuse/decline to speak with our officers in further detail.

“While we sometimes need more information, every tip received is vetted and investigated regardless of the tipster’s willingness or ability to continue sharing information.”

Smyrna PD’s social media outreach began in early 2014. Since then the responses have provided a wide swath of information.

“We use social media for a wide array of assistance from our community,” Cpl. Donner said. “From posting photos of pets we locate to asking for the public’s help in identifying violent criminals, we are willing to use social media avenues in every way possible.

“Social media has clearly become one of the most widely used forms of communication in our modern society and we would be remiss in our duties if we did not take advantage of it.”

Wide-ranging contacts

The contacts are wide ranging and vary from crime-related to general concerns and needs.

“We receive information and tips of all kinds,” Cpl. Donner said. “When we specifically ask for the public’s help on a case, they are great about getting us real-time usable information. In lieu of specific help, we get lots of general questions ranging from town ordinance questions, to people trying to report real-time police needs to us.”

The “invaluable” nature of social media can’t be understated in Smyrna PD operations, Cpl. Donner said.

“The ability to communicate with a mass of people in just minutes cannot be quantified by numbers or explanation,” according to Cpl. Donner. “The days of distributing ‘Wanted’ posters at the local post office and hoping for a tip in a few weeks are long gone.

“We are now at a point where we can post something to our social media account, and almost expect to begin receiving help within minutes. We do not take this for granted.”

While the Smyrna community has bought into the law agency’s online presence, maintaining momentum isn’t guaranteed without continued attention within the department.

“We know that we can lose that a lot quicker than we have built it up,” Cpl. Donner said. “Therefore we are always striving to remain connected, transparent and caring with our citizens.”

Cpl. Donner has attended two PIO schools and specific trainings/conferences related to social media use in law enforcement are available. The officer described the FBI Law Enforcement Executive Development Association as “very comprehensive and informative and went in depth on using social media.

“Beyond that, the day-to-day operating on social media provides continuing experience and knowledge.”

Social media use by Delaware police continues to grow, and Cpl. Donner has established strong working relationships with Delaware State Police public information officer Sgt. Richard Bratz and Dover PD’s public information officer Master Cpl. Mark Hoffman.

“When we first began utilizing social media, we were one of only a handful of departments in the area doing so,” Cpl. Donner said. “As such, we kind of came in at the ground level and had to build it up from there.

“There have been many times where I have reached out to (Sgt. Bratz and Cpl. Hoffman) or networked with them to get some ideas and assistance.”

Forward thinking

Communication avenues are expected to increase.

“We are always looking at ways to expand upon our social media outreach,” Cpl. Donner said. “If something makes sense logistically, we will try it.

“Moving forward, our command staff has prioritized social media as one of our foundational pillars that we will rely upon in our day-to-day policing. The expansion of social media as a way of communication does not appear to be slowing down anytime soon.

“It is our job as law enforcement to reflect the wants and needs of our community. If their preferred means of communication is via a social media platform than it is our job to accommodate that.”

A wide range of age groups have taken part in the social media expansion.

“It is generally reflective of the diverse population that we serve,” Cpl. Donner said.

“With that said, it is widely accepted that the younger generations are more active on Twitter, versus the middle- and older-aged folks being more active on Facebook.

“It is also common for people these days to have multiple social media accounts across numerous platforms.”

The social media sites aren’t checked continuously, but citizens needing immediate attention can reach the dispatch center at all times by calling 653-9217 or 911.

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