Two robberies and a shooting only minutes apart caught the eye of La Vista Police Chief Bob Lausten.
He thought the public should learn more immediately, even though the crimes happened in the neighboring communities of Ralston and Papillion.
So just after the Papillion robbery happened, Lausten tweeted:
Looks like the RadioShack on 84th St. in Papio was just robbed shortly after Little Cesar's.Possibly the same two suspects.— Chief Bob Lausten (@LPDChiefLausten) January 9, 2013
Appears to be one person shot at the RadioShack stick up. Unknown condition. #lvpd— Chief Bob Lausten (@LPDChiefLausten) January 9, 2013
That prompted at least one La Vista resident to thank him for the information.
Now people can get public safety information faster than ever through social media, and local law enforcement agencies are part of a growing group participating.
“It's the future,” said Bellevue Police Chief Mark Elbert. “There's no way around it.”
The goal is to spread the word about how to prevent crime and make police more approachable to the public.
Bellevue adopted a social media policy in 2009 — one of the first departments in the country to do so, said Lauri Stevens, a social media consultant who has worked with the Bellevue and Omaha Police Departments.
About a half-dozen Bellevue officers on Twitter send reminders about traffic safety, post about upcoming events and answer questions and comments from followers.
Here is a recent tweet from Officer Sean Vest:
Actually stopping at a stop sign is much easier & cheaper than being pulled over & getting a stop sign ticket for $123 twitter.com/OfcVest/status…— Officer Sean Vest (@OfcVest) January 10, 2013
In Bellevue, officers are allowed to create a social media presence as long as they go through training. They are not supposed to send tweets or other messages that might compromise an investigation or infringe on someone's privacy.
Elbert said he's seen only minor missteps from his officers, such as a joke that could be misinterpreted.
Stevens tells police departments that a social media presence will bring them several benefits. No. 1 is the ability to get information to citizens and crowdsource information.
“Social media is just the latest evolution in communications technology,” Stevens said. “If you're not going to use it, it's a little bit like not picking up the phone.”
In a disaster such as a tornado or a mass shooting, police can tell citizens where to go for shelter.
“That right there is community policing,” Stevens said.
About 25 percent of police departments nationwide have embraced social media, she said.
Even the Sarpy County Attorney's Office has gotten in on the action with its own Twitter account.
Chief Deputy County Attorney Tricia Freeman cautioned that police officers shouldn't feel that they can post just anything on social media.
They should avoid posting the same things that they would avoid talking about at a cocktail party. Evidence is off-limits, as is anything else that could compromise an investigation.
Anything that might prejudice a potential jury, she said, also should be avoided.
Freeman hasn't kept track of local police agencies, but she said she hasn't seen a problem with a social media post here.
Stevens said most social media problems come from agencies that don't have a policy to address the matter. In those departments, she said, officers are more likely to be unsure about what is appropriate.
The Omaha Police Department has selected a handful of officers to tweet, and they can do so only with training.
“We trust them to carry a gun,” she noted.
Besides the department's tweeters, about 13,000 people follow the Omaha Police Department Facebook page, and it usually is updated several times a day. Comments are monitored and, when necessary, addressed.
“OPD is really remarkable for the way they talk to people,” Stevens said.
Their secret weapon is Bridget Fitzpatrick, a civilian who has worked in the department for 17 years.
She focuses on the more “touchy-feely” posts that sworn officers might avoid — like jokes or a video of an officer singing — and followers respond well.
The department intersperses those posts with public safety information, such as a picture of a robber whom police are trying to find or suggestions on how to drive safely in the winter.
“If you trust the public,” Fitzpatrick said, “they're going to help you.”
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