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Social media a tool, potential pitfall for Ore. cops

The Portland Police Bureau and a growing number of agencies are pressing into sites like Facebook and Twitter

By Kasia Hall
The Oregonian

PORTLAND  It was a simple click of a mouse that got Kyle Culley in trouble.

The 28-year-old felon was having a sale.

On Facebook.

For guns.

Portland police found out the same way everyone else did, by connecting with Culley online. Police set up a buy, and in January 2013 they arrested him. Then they tweeted about it.

That sort of exchange is why the Portland Police Bureau and a growing number of agencies are pressing into sites like Facebook and Twitter. Based on the promise of connecting with the community and catching criminals, social media sites are taking on a new importance in police work.

Agencies are creating accounts to help them both reach out to the public and track bad guys. They post information about cold cases, arrests and some even throwback to old photos on Instagram.

Officers are using the networks' crime-fighting power by reviewing social media profiles and creating undercover social identities to connect with criminals and sweep up clues left behind on the Web.

"There is so much information that people freely put out there that is public," said Sgt. Pete Simpson, Portland Police Bureau spokesman. "You're not hacking into people's accounts. It's not hidden; it's not private."

But with the power of the post is also the potential for public relations debacles that can blindside an agency. Agencies like the New York Police Department have learned the hard way that even well-meaning campaigns can turn sour.

When law enforcement agencies discovered that criminals were using social media sites to brag about crimes or even upload incriminating photos and videos, many agencies got on board.

A 2013 survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police reveals that 96 percent of the 500 agencies sampled plugged in. The majority of agencies report using those sites to assist in criminal investigations.

In April the Marion County Sheriff's Office showed its social media savvy when it busting an underage party by tracking tweets and issuing warnings to potential partygoers.

Looking for any information on a large party said to be occurring around 6:00 p.m. coined "Project Nat". If you have info call 503-588-5032
 Marion Co. Sheriff (@MCSOInTheKnow) April 11, 2014

By the end of the night, the suspected organizer, 19-year-old Nathaniel Gray, was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, furnishing alcohol to a minor, littering and providing a place for minors to consume alcohol.

"We didn't invent (the technique), that's for sure," said Sgt. Chris Baldridge, a spokesman for the Marion County Sheriff's Office. "It worked wholeheartedly because it generated the interest."
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Social media also provides an opportunity for law enforcement agencies to show the humans behind the badge.

A winning strategy for Portland police? Try a Trail Blazers tweet.

We don't normally endorse theft, but stealing 1 from the @HoustonRockets is just fine with us @trailblazers #RipCity #PORvsHOU #NBAPlayoffs
 Portland Police (@PortlandPolice) April 21, 2014

One hundred and 40 characters later the agency was receiving kudos from national networks for its hoops humor.

Since joining Twitter in 2008, Portland police has increased its activity on the site in an effort to join local conversations. Police Chief Mike Reese has his own handle, and Simpson and three others on the communications team are responsible for social media interaction on the bureau's accounts.

It's extra work, Simpson said, but the team has fun with it.

"When Blue Star Donuts opened, we went on Twitter and welcomed (them). People thought that was hilarious," Simpson said.

By 2011 the agency was adding its hashtag to its new blue-and-white police cars, a trend now seen nationwide. The agency has developed a sizeable social media footprint -- about 28,000 followers on Twitter and more than 11,000 likes on Facebook. That kind of clout allows it to communicate with many people quickly.

It also opens to the door to widely seen criticism.

"Portland police are out in force stopping distracted drivers. Who is going to stop them?" Cyndi Murphy said in her review of the bureau on Facebook. "They are some of the most distracted drivers out there and the last car I want driving anywhere near me."

Simpson said the bureau addresses some comments and questions.

"If it's a reasonable question we can answer, we will try to answer it," Simpson said.  "A lot of times if somebody posts some smarmy comment or question, other followers will answer it in the way we would, but it matters more that its coming from people in the community."

But a big faux pas can generate swift backlash well outside the community. In late April the NYPD asked citizens to post photos of themselves with officers using the hashtag #myNYPD. The campaign quickly turned negative as users posted photos of alleged police brutality and misconduct.

A campaign by the Prince George County Police Department in Maryland to live tweet a prostitution sting this week garnered a swift social media reaction showing mixed support for the idea.
.@PGPDNews #PGPDVice Are you serious? You are going to live-tweet arrests? Have you forgotten the line between reality and reality TV?
 Jodi Jacobson (@jljacobson) May 1, 2014

THANK YOU for cleaning up our streets! "@PGPDNews: Message to our community about upcoming prostitution sting. http://t.co/ScbEAHQX4s"
 Lisa Holt (@BalloonLisa) May 2, 2014

Prince George police didn't go through with the campaign, but it's ideas like those that Portland police will be watching as it seeks to increase its presence online. The bureau is searching for officers to take over handles for each precinct.

Other local agencies are expanding their social media efforts, too. The Clackamas County Sheriff's Office conducted a virtual ridealong Monday on Twitter. That's something Portland is considering, too.

"The NYPD got in the news lately not really by doing anything wrong. It just got hijacked by other people. That's some of the risks," Simpson said. "We put stuff out all the time. Our philosophy is that (the risk) should not prevent us from using this as a tool to engage the community."
 Kasia Hall

Copyright 2014 The Oregonian

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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