TAMPA — A frightened student at Liberty Middle School told resource Officer Donna Showalter another girl had posted a threat against her on MySpace.com, a social networking site popular with teens and young adults.
In the past, Showalter would have had to ask the girl to print out the comments and bring them in. But that day she just loaded up her own MySpace account, set up by the Tampa Police Department, and found the threat herself.
"I printed the comment out before she could take it down and brought her in, and she couldn't deny that she was caught," Showalter said.
The girls talked out their differences and Showalter defused a potentially violent situation.
That's the goal for the Tampa Police Department, which took the innovative step in summer 2008 to create MySpace pages for itself and each of its 25 school resource officers, said Cpl. Scott Buchanan, senior school resource officer supervisor.
"The goal is prevention," he said. "To get to things before they happen."
Police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said the push to have an Internet presence came after she heard a news story about how a MySpace page helped solve the murder of Chicago dermatologist David Cornbleet.
The victim's children created a MySpace page that included surveillance video of a suspect and details of the October 2006 murder. Six months later, said the Chicago Sun-Times, a Marine in New York responded, saying he knew the killer.
McElroy and the Public Information Office created the Police Department's main MySpace page, where public information officers post robbery surveillance videos and entries about cold case homicides and other unsolved crimes. McElroy said the page connects the police to people ages 14 to 25 who don't watch the TV news or read the newspaper.
So far, the TPD's MySpace page has over 300 Internet "friends,'' and over 6,000 page views.
"It's all about information sharing," she said. "We're riding the technology wave."
Taking this a step further, school resource officers like Showalter have made their own pages. Buchanan says school pages, around since October, haven't generated breaks in any major cases but he said he has hope that it will pay off in the future.
"It's a good investigative tool, it's just a matter of getting it out there," he said.
Informing students about the MySpace page is the responsibility of school resource officers.
Showalter said she turned to students for help designing Liberty Middle's TPD page because she just didn't understand the technology. "But it's not a bad thing because you get to meet students who aren't in trouble and build relationships with them," she said.
As the Web page loads, the theme song to the TV show Cops rings out, Bad boys, bad boys. Whatcha gonna do?
She recently posted a legal definition and explanation of battery, because there has been a rise in roughhousing that has parents worried.
"I put that information out there so the students can understand before it becomes a problem," Showalter said.
Other schools use the page to spread the word about petty thefts.
In the blog section, the Sligh Middle School resource officer posted on March 18: "On 03/12/2009 there was a Laptop computer which was taken from one of the classrooms. If you have any information leading to the recovery of the laptop, contact Officer Matos or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-873-TIPS (8477)."
Buchanan said he requires the officers to check the pages five days a week.
So far, the only other regional departments that use MySpace are the Polk, Manatee and Sarasota County sheriff's offices, but several said they are looking into it, including the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
"It's another tool in our toolbox to help solve crimes," Buchanan said.
Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or firstname.lastname@example.org.