By Rae Jefferson
Virtual red and blue lights are flashing across the Internet, with more and more Waco-area police departments making the transition to social media.
Both the Waco and Baylor police departments have taken steps to establish a social media presence. The Baylor Police Department uses Facebook, and the Waco Police Department has taken to using Facebook as well as Twitter.
“It’s another avenue of communication,” said Baylor police Chief Jim Doak. “We can provide access and service to students.”
The International Association of Chiefs of Police, an organization dedicated to sharing information among police groups, conducted research in 2013 about to the popularity of the nation’s police departments on social media. According to the association’s Center for Social Media website, about 96 percent of the 500 surveyed departments used social media, with 92 percent of those departments using Facebook.
The Baylor Police Department is still figuring out how to best utilize social media for its department. Doak said the biggest challenge of using Facebook as a prominent means of communicating with the Baylor community is a shortage of staff to manage the department’s page.
“It’s extremely time-consuming,” he said. “We’re not big enough to isolate just one person to handle social media. Other larger departments in Dallas or Houston have one person who handles all of that. We’re working the best we can with it.”
Doak said Baylor police started using social media in August.
“We wanted to be on board,” he said. “We started using at the beginning of last semester and we feel our reception has been positive.”
Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said his department started using social media about two and a half years ago. The greatest appeal of social media was the speed with which information is made available and shared, he said.
“It’s instantaneous,” Swanton said. “We can put information out and it goes to so many different people, and with features like re-tweeting and re-posting, it just spreads like wildfire.”
Doak also said speed makes social media an effective platform for communicating with an audience.
“You get feedback quicker — it’s faster than me nailing up a poster,” he said.
According to a Mobile Technology Fact Sheet supplied on the Pew Research website, 90 percent of adult Americans own a cellphone, with 58 percent of those phones being a smartphone, which offers mobile application versions of Facebook and Twitter.
“It really helps with getting the word out to a different set of people,” Swanton said, referring to smartphone users who may not get news from broadcast or print sources. “Almost everybody has a cellphone.”
Social media has helped police departments catch persons of interest, send out crime and weather alerts and get communities involved in identifying missing persons, Swanton said.
“It’s a great way to interact with the community,” he said.
About 73 percent of the law enforcement agencies surveyed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police said social media improved their department’s relations with the community.
Swanton said police presence on social media platforms can sometimes be negative.
These Waco-area police departments are not the only ones jumping on the social media bandwagon. In a rising trend, departments in other cities and at other institutions are turning to social media to stay connected with their audiences, Swanton said.
“A lot of police departments were hesitant to use it because it was fairly unfamiliar,” he said.
Swanton said improper responses to the Facebook and Twitter accounts are the biggest issues they have run in to.
“Sometimes people will respond to the Facebook page or Twitter account with information they really should call 911 about,” he said. “Outside of that, we haven’t really found any major drawbacks of using social media.”
The Baylor Police Department has high hopes for its future with social media, Doak said.
“We’re here and available for everyone,” he said. “It’s a work in progress, but we’re very pleased with where we’re going.”