When social media gets deputized

Meet the Boynton Beach Police Department. It's on the forefront of using social media for everything from promoting its TV appearances to searching for the crooks who just robbed a liquor store.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
6 min read

Stephanie Slater, public information officer at the Boynton Beach Police Department, checks on its Facebook fan page. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla.--In a windowless second-floor office in the stucco building that houses the Boynton Beach Police Department about an hour north of Miami, there's a computer monitor on the back wall displaying a full-screen version of Twitter client TweetDeck.

"Lots of real estate listings," commented Stephanie Slater, the BBPD's public information officer and chief media spokesperson, sitting in front of the monitor. "A few people are just tweeting news headlines about what's going on in town. Nothing really."

Slater, a former cop-beat reporter for the local Palm Beach Post, was keeping tabs on a Twitter search query for Boynton Beach to see what users of the chatty service are saying about the city of 65,000. She's also in charge of maintaining the police department's own Twitter account, its Facebook fan page, and its library of YouTube videos. As law enforcement's role in the social-media universe has increasingly become a topic of discussion and debate, the BBPD has become one of the first police departments in the country to step forward and say that they think they've figured it out.

"We had two guys break into a liquor store the other day, so we posted the video of them smashing the door in the hopes of identifying the suspects," Slater said, minimizing the TweetDeck window and loading up a YouTube video of surveillance-camera footage with the caption 'Police need help identifying liquor thieves.' "It's gotten 425 views already, and for a small police department in Boynton Beach, that's a lot of views." They haven't identified the booze snatchers yet, but Slater said they've had "a few tips."

Most of the headlines these days about law enforcement and social media aren't pretty: Philadelphia city council members have accused Facebook and Twitter of ignoring crimes that may be plotted through social-media channels; a San Francisco Bay Area cop posted on Facebook that he'd be in favor of shooting handgun owners on sight; the Austin, Texas, police department grew alarmed when they learned that somebody was impersonating them on Twitter.

Not so much at the BBPD. "We figured this would be a perfect way to kind of brand the police department, and to interact with our community in a fun setting, to use something that people enjoy doing to educate them," Slater told CNET. She created a MySpace page for the department in the fall of 2007, back when the News Corp.-owned social network was still more prominent than Facebook. Next came a YouTube account and a Facebook fan page--the BBPD was the first police department in Florida to create one--and finally, early last year, a Twitter account.

"Anything that we send to our local media we put on all of our social media sites so that it's basically that we are our own newspaper, we are our own radio station, we're our own TV station," Slater said. The BBPD's Facebook page is dotted with short updates congratulating Officer of the Month awards, announcing when the department would be making an appearance on TV show "Cops," and more serious updates like missing-person searches. "It personalizes the local police department. For a lot of people, their experiences with police are not positive, so here's a great outlet for people to have a positive interaction with their local police department."

And indeed, she elaborated, the rise of social media use at the BBPD went hand-in-hand with the increasing difficulties plaguing traditional media outlets.

Facebook/Boynton Beach Police Department

Local television and newspaper outlets were laying off employees, which meant there wasn't always someone on staff to cover a minor cop story or even to come down to the police headquarters to pick up video footage to run on the local news. To expedite the process, the BBPD looked into e-mailing video files of crime scenes, surveillance cameras, and other "Reno 911"-worthy media to reporters and TV stations but soon found that the files were too big. That's how they got their start on YouTube.

"We post all of our press releases, video, photos, any awards that an officer might receive, anything to do with the police department," Slater said. "Obviously, our local media is very important to us, but there are times when they are not going to cover stories that we think are important."

The BBPD's YouTube channel pushed it into the national spotlight last August when Slater uploaded a video that had been shot at a fake crime scene that led to the arrest of a woman who'd hired a hit man to kill her husband. The assassin turned out to be an undercover cop, and the BBPD then set up a crime scene and told the woman that her husband had been found dead. She believed that her supposed hit man had done his job and began to feign shock and horror--now, she's been charged with solicitation to commit first-degree murder. Word got out about the YouTube clip, and it's pulled in more than 250,000 views.

Not everyone loved it. When coverage of the "murder for hire" YouTube video reached CNN's Headline News, the cable network quoted a defense attorney who said that having the footage online "can actually prejudice her and prevent her from getting a fair trial" and that it would be "a terrible practice if the police department takes a habit of posting videos." The BBPD maintains that the video had been shot on a public street, was going to wind up in public records, and that the woman had already committed the crime when it was filmed.

Plus, the fact that the BBPD is in Florida may mean that legally, it can be more liberal with what goes on social networks. Florida has a set of regulations called "Sunshine" laws, which as Slater explained, keeps its public records extremely broad. Nothing goes onto the BBPD's Facebook page or YouTube channel that wouldn't be publicly available anyway. This may not be the case with the many other police departments that operate Facebook pages or Twitter accounts.

But regardless of whether a police department uses a Facebook fan page to announce its Officer of the Month or pushes out local news alerts through Twitter, it's become clear that local law enforcement still needs to understand social media--keeping tabs on crooks' personal profiles, for example, or seeing whether a publicly available Facebook invitation is advertising a raging beach party.

Slater disagrees with the Philadelphia city council members who think that social-media sites are obligated to monitor activity and turn over information to law enforcement authorities. Her perspective: that should be the cops' job. "I believe as law enforcement we have a responsibility to our public. This is just one more way that we can keep an eye on our community; if there is something then we can respond."

When presented with a scenario of what might happen if Twitter or Facebook searches yielded, say, teenagers conspiring to throw a huge house party within the Boynton Beach city limits, Slater said the tactics would be fairly routine. "I have a search set up on TweetDeck for Boynton Beach and I check it every day, throughout the day," she said. "So if I ever saw something that was like that, I would then contact the watch commander and say, 'hey, kids are bragging about doing this.'...We'd have an officer just drive by there a couple times that night."

Is it nosy for your local cops to be on Facebook? You might think so, but Slater says that's their job, and public information on the Web--especially as Facebook is encouraging members to make more and more content public and searchable--is technically everyone's business. "I tell people if you're posting something on your Facebook that would make your grandmother blush, that's not something you should be posting."

Admittedly, sometimes she has to similarly remind the BBPD's own officers, bringing up an example of an officer elsewhere in Palm Beach County who was demoted for posting Facebook status updates about how much he liked to beat up suspects. "I printed out that article and posted it everywhere, because while obviously (the officers) are allowed to have a Facebook site, they are held accountable for the types of information that's on there. They can't go bragging about arrests they made," Slater said. "When they go home they're still representatives of this agency."