BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County Sheriff's Office is wading into the age of electronic social networking with a Facebook page and a Twitter feed.
"It's another avenue for us to stay in touch with the community," Sheriff Al Nienhuis said.
The Sheriff's Office joined Facebook in February but just started this month to post content there. Facebook users can "like" the Sheriff's Office page and get reminders about coming events, news about kudos given to staffers and other "good things going on in the Sheriff's Office," Nienhuis said.
"We're also hoping to crank up the volunteers, and this is a way to do that," he said.
Many of the updates are links to stories by local media outlets, whether it's crime-related coverage or a feature about a coming event. In recent days, updates have included a news story about a man who allegedly hit his sister for refusing to give him $20; a press release about the Sheriff's Office's public service aide program; and a photo album from the recent Hurricane and Safety Expo at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.
On Twitter, once people sign up, they can follow updates — tweets — from other people or organizations, and vice versa. People can see tweets on their Twitter home page, or they can be sent instantly to a cell phone or e-mail address.
Tweets have a 140-character maximum but can include links to other Web pages. When the Sheriff's Office posts a status update with content on Facebook, Twitter followers will see a tweet with a link to the same content, said Lt. Cinda Moore, who will be updating the page. Moore and Capt. Jim Powers approached Nienhuis with the idea to get on both social networking sites.
Not that he wasn't familiar with them already.
Nienhuis was at the Pasco Sheriff's Office when that agency joined Facebook and Twitter. He has his own Facebook page to keep up with family and friends.
Eventually, the Sheriff's Office will follow the lead of its counterparts in other counties, where social media sites also serve as crime-fighting tools and alert systems, Nienhuis said.
"I see it as an evolution," he said. "Right now we're just crawling — we haven't started to walk yet — and before long, hopefully, we'll be running."
On Monday, in fact, the Sheriff's Office posted its first such effort: two grainy, black and white surveillance photos of a thin man in jeans suspected in a theft at a Weeki Wachee home.
By Wednesday, 230 Facebook users had "liked" the Sheriff's Office page, and the Twitter feed had 24 followers.
Local law enforcement agencies can't hope to have as many Twitter followers as celebrities such as musician Kanye West (3.3 million) or actor Demi Moore (3.5 million), but there is still potential to reach a relatively sizable audience.
In Polk County, where nearly 7,900 people "like" the Sheriff's Office Facebook page and more than 1,300 follow its Twitter feed, no crime is too small or large to merit a request for help from the public.
One recent Facebook status update asks for help finding a man caught on camera trying to steal beer from the E-Z Food store in Lake Wales. The thief trips and falls after his saggy pants fall down, and beer cans go flying. The video went viral.
Another Polk update seeks leads after a man was gunned down in Fort Meade. At the end of the notice is a link where iPhone and Droid users can download a free app to anonymously provide crime tips.
The sheriff's offices in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough also post crime-related press releases and other content offering a glimpse into the world of crime fighting.
The Pasco Sheriff's Office recently posted photos of towering marijuana plants taken inside a grow house. Pinellas posted a video showing Casey Anthony, the Orlando mother accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter, as she was booked into the Pinellas County Jail before jury selection began in Largo for her trial in Orlando.
The Pasco Sheriff's Office uses Twitter to notify the public about breaking news like school lockdowns, missing children, escaped prisoners and wanted fugitives, said spokesman Kevin Doll.
There is also a public relations element to the Twitter feeds, but those are kept to a minimum, Doll said.
"We don't want people to think we're spamming them," he said.
Visitors are welcome to leave comments on the Hernando Facebook page, but it's not the place to ask for service or lodge a complaint since it won't be monitored around the clock, Nienhuis said. If you need a timely response, call the office at (352) 754-6850.
And don't expect Nienhuis to use the Twitter account to wax philosophical or post the minutiae of his day a la Kanye and Demi.
"None of us have time for that," he said, laughing.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.