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MailTribune.com
  • Social media use by police gets a thumbs up thus far

    Law enforcement and public service agencies reach a receptive audience through Facebook, Twitter
  • The Facebook post's tone is straight out of a comic book, one of those puzzles in the back jammed in between word searches and magic tricks.
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  • The Facebook post's tone is straight out of a comic book, one of those puzzles in the back jammed in between word searches and magic tricks.
    "OK, fellow crime fighters," the post reads. "Help us find Richard Myers."
    Penned by Lt. Mike Budreau of Medford police, the post goes on to tell Myers' backstory. Clues, maybe, parts to that comic book puzzle that's actually real life. Myers, 31, is a suspect in a recent burglary, alleged to have swiped a Rolex and a safe containing debit cards. There is also a physical description and surveillance and jail mugshot photos to go along with it.
    "If you know where he might be, give us a shout. You can be anonymous," the post reads.
    Challenge accepted. On Thursday, the Facebook post had received 119 shares, a slew of comments and 85 "likes." No arrests yet, but the word is out.
    "This guy was just at the train park," one response reads.
    "Great news! I hope you catch him!" says another.
    "Oh we will, Marie," Budreau responds.
    Budreau takes this snapshot of interaction as evidence that area residents are interested in being kept up-to-date on the activities of police and other public service agencies. Frequently, residents also want to help.
    Big or small, updates via Facebook and Twitter help Rogue Valley public service agencies share information in ongoing cases, promote events and give glimpses of their work behind the scenes.
    "I think that (social media) is successful because people talk in a more casual form, and we do, too," Budreau says. "We can just say it like it is, and I think people really like that."
    Medford police, the Jackson County Sheriff's Department, Medford Fire-Rescue, the Oregon Department of Forestry's Southwest Oregon office and Rogue River police all use Facebook and/or Twitter.
    The uses for Facebook posts and tweets are diverse and far-reaching. Key among them is pushing out information to as many people as possible in a timely fashion, officials say.
    Sheriff's spokeswoman Andrea Carlson pointed to the hay mower-sparked Upper Table Rock fire June 19 that drew a slew of wildland firefighters and law enforcement to the scene. While firefighters battled the flames, Carlson says she was able to keep drivers in the area apprised of road closures.
    "We received quite a few messages," Carlson says. "'Thanks for putting this up here,' 'Hey, is the road still blocked?' We were able to talk to people directly."
    On June 25, Medford Fire-Rescue posted photos and front-row-seat video of a warehouse fire in downtown Medford earlier that day.
    Heather Mook, MFR's administrative assistant to the battalion chief of training and safety, says the images provided another vantage point on containment efforts.
    "The video got a lot of attention," Mook says.
    Rogue River police Chief Ken Lewis says the speed of disseminating information is key to social media's usefulness. When he tweets, it's often about a crime that just occurred or an investigation that just got underway.
    "It seems like when we do have an issue, there'll be a pretty intense period of tweeting," Lewis says.
    Even for the smallest of cases. The second theft of a pet rabbit at a Rogue River preschool prompted Lewis to tweet with photos.
    "Who has Stew? Where is Amos? TWO rabbit mascots stolen from Great Beginnings Preschool in Rogue River in 3 months," one tweet read.
    A few days later, Amos turned up alive and OK in a Dumpster, found by a local homeless man. A tweet from Lewis that day shows his elation:
    "AMOS, THE KIDNAPPED RABBIT FROM GREAT BEGINNINGS PRESCHOOL HAS BEEN FOUND!"
    Lewis says the amount of information on Twitter about the theft may have put additional pressure on whoever took Amos to let the rabbit go.
    "I know we can directly attribute that to the tweets we put out," Lewis says.
    When police cannot identify someone in surveillance video — a suspect who just robbed a bank, for example — they will sometimes put photos of the person on their social media pages. Often, that move pays off.
    "I put it on Facebook, and if (they're) around here, (they) will be identified within the day, usually within a couple hours," Budreau says. "It's really cool to have so many eyes and ears out there for us."
    He pointed to a January travel trailer theft for which the suspects were apprehended within 24 hours, even though they had left the area. Police posted information about the trailer, including a description and its license plate.
    "Can anyone ID this guy?" a post asks, showing a surveillance photo of one of the alleged trailer thieves.
    The tips started rolling in, and a few hours later, Budreau posted again: "A flood of tips led to the location of the trailer at Crater Lake National Park. Three suspects in custody. Thank you all for sharing this post, justice was served and one happy victim has his trailer back."
    The same helpfulness holds true for missing-persons cases.
    "It's not rare for us to have 18,000 views. It's insane," Carlson says. "On some of our larger missing-person cases, we have thousands of people who come in contact with (those posts)."
    Information on crimes and emergencies is only part of why police and fire agencies are finding social media useful.
    Those posting or tweeting say social media is also a good platform for showing the day-to-day functions of their organizations. For Medford Fire-Rescue, that includes information about new recruit academies, fundraising events such as Fill the Boot, and reminders to stay away from dry vegetation when setting off legal fireworks. Updates on the construction progress of the department's new stations are forthcoming.
    Budreau says the platforms lend themselves to a less formal tone, which he considers a positive.
    Erik Palmer, assistant professor of convergent media at Southern Oregon University, says that's because the way information gets distributed is changing, with more sites taking a conversational and interactive approach. And, he says, public service agencies should get on board with putting a human face on their work if they want to keep people interested.
    "We're not as impressed, by and large, with formality and authority as we used to be, I don't think," Palmer says. "When (the public) encounter the social media that's produced by a police agency, and they see that it's not a bunch of press releases by some obscure person, when you see that there is a message of service and a message of collaboration "» I think that goes a long way towards helping the police engage with the citizens."
    But a balance is still required, law enforcement officials say. Professionalism and civility are still very much a part of the equation, and some moderation is required. Budreau says he has had to delete some public comments.
    "Typically we don't allow for profane language, threatening someone, commenting about anybody's race or sexual orientation," Budreau says, adding negative comments directed at the department are often left up, as long as they remain in the realm of civility.
    "Lol you guys had a hard time catching up to a 63 year old bahaha. That's pathetic," a poster writes about the recent arrest of Gerald Schram, a man wanted on outstanding warrants who allegedly had been lurking near a pool and possibly watching children swimming.
    "Hey!" Medford police responds. "First of all he had a big lead and second of all, we got him! And this guy was jumping fences, so it wasn't a gimme."
    Carlson says she hopes to do more play-by-play updates, similar to how she approached distributing information on the Table Rock fire.
    "I think that for us, giving the more up-to-date immediate updates for people, I think that was very useful, and we hope to do more things like that," she says.
    Medford Fire-Rescue says it plans regular posts on practical fire safety at home and more behind-the-scenes glimpses into the department's training academies.
    "I'm surprised at how much activity we've had and very pleased," Mook says. "We enjoy getting the feedback, whatever it is."
    Budreau says his tone with updates continues to develop. A recent post on the numbers of suspects who claim the pants they wore — where police located drugs — belonged to someone else, reads more like a humor column.
    "Medford police would like to remind people to not wear other people's pants, as it seems to be getting a lot of people in trouble," the post reads.
    The post was well received with 214 shares, 620 "likes" and dozens of comments. The feedback on that and other posts continues to make the work rewarding, Budreau says.
    "In the future, I would like to do even more," he says. "It seems like there's always something interesting going on around Medford."
    Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.
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