Police departments embrace social media to inform public

At least a half dozen times daily, the Anne Arundel County Police Department taps into its vast social networks and connects with tens of thousands of followers.

From its Twitter and Facebook accounts, the department shares safety tips, updates on ongoing investigations and achievements within the agency.

Sometimes, the officers have a little fun, too.

A tweet sent out by the department on St. Patrick’s Day, complete with a sketch of a leprechaun, showed off the department’s humorous side.

"If you #drinkanddrive the fool is you... 'Cus you'll have to deal with Anne Arundel's #BoysInBlue" #StPatricksDay,” the tweet read.    

READ MORE: The Anne Arundel County Police Department's Twitter feed

Last month, Police Chief Kevin Davis rounded up some of his officers and tweeted out a picture that parodied Ellen DeGeneres’ now-famous Oscar selfie.

Anne Arundel County police spokesman Justin Mulcahy, whose duties include keeping county police’s Twitter and Facebook feeds updated, said the use of social media helps to humanize the department.

“It really breaks down barriers,” Mulcahy said.

In Focus |  ABC2 News takes a look at the Howard County Police Department’s use of social media to get the word out about the Columbia Mall shootings in January -- THURSDAY @ 6 p.m.

Mulcahy said the Anne Arundel police department began using social media in 2009. The agency’s following has swelled to more than 11,000 on Twitter, and more than 22,000 on Facebook, where the department sometimes hosts live chats with county residents. The agency also uses Instagram to share photos.

“If you’re not doing this now, you’re a few years behind,” Mulcahy said.

The Baltimore County Police Department also relies heavily on Twitter and Facebook. Cpl. John Wachter, a spokesman for the department, points to the recent Caitlyn Virts kidnapping case as an example of when social media works.

The department kept putting out updates and asking followers and fans to retweet and share the information. Facebook users shared the information all the way to Florence, S.C., where the owner of the motel that Virts’ father checked into recognized him from the Internet and called police.

READ MORE: Motel owner recognizes Virts, calls police

Several years ago, police located a missing person in Essex not long after putting the information out on the department’s social networks. Because so many people have smartphones these days, it’s easier than ever to convey news quickly, Wachter said.

“It is an excellent tool,” he said.

David Johnson, the CEO of Strategic Vision, LLC, a Georgia-based public relations firm, said law enforcement agencies are “slowly embracing” social media.

The savviest agencies use sites like Twitter and Facebook to engage the public—responding to questions from followers, posting safety tips and starting conversations with the community.

“If it’s not kept active, people are not going to go to it,” Johnson said.

Moderating discussions, though, is key to their success. Otherwise, rumor and innuendo are likely to take over, Johnson said.

The Anne Arundel County Police Department has several verified Twitter accounts in addition to its official department account.

Davis, along with spokesman Lt. T.J. Smith and Davis’ deputy chief and chief of staff each have Twitter accounts verified by the department.

In times when news is breaking late and fast, Mulcahy says it’s helpful to get updates out online for the media and the public.

“People crave information,” Mulcahy said.

It also helps to correct wrong information quickly. Earlier this year, reports of a shooting at Arundel Mills Mall in Hanover turned out to be unfounded, and the department used their social media accounts to let the public know.

“It’s a rumor control, too,” Mulcahy said. 

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