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How Tampa Bay law enforcement use selfies to solve crimes — and connect with communities

Published Oct. 3, 2015

If Tampa Bay law enforcement officers are thankful for just one thing in the age of social media, it's the selfie.

Hillsborough sheriff's deputies once nabbed a couple of teens after they broke into a home and stole jewelry, then posted a photo of themselves flaunting their illict finds.

In Pasco County, a woman led deputies right to her location when she mocked their "warrant of the day" post of her mugshot on Facebook. She snapped an antagonizing selfie outside a home in Moon Lake — unaware the address was visible in the background.

Countless others have posted pictures of themselves posing with drugs or stolen cars, flashing gang signs and even showing off guns used in shootings.

"Criminals seem to be really proud of what they do," said Pasco County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Melanie Snow. "That's fine. Keep on snapping selfies."

This is what crime-fighting looks like in the Internet age.

Social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and even Periscope — have done more than just give investigators a powerful new tool, though. They've also created a new, unfettered line of communication between police agencies and the communities they serve that never existed before.

And it's changed the way officers approach community policing.

In St. Petersburg, police Chief Tony Holloway has spent the last year implementing his "park, walk and talk" initiative, which requires officers to spend time walking the streets they patrol and talking to citizens.

The agency's public relations office has also been translating Holloway's philosophy to social media, said community awareness manager Yolanda Fernandez. Her office works with officers to share information about crime-fighting efforts in specific neighborhoods, like a prostitution sting or drug bust.

"When we do a prostitution roundup, we usually do it because we've received complaints," she said. "It's an opportunity to tell people we are doing something about it."

Ben Gorban, a project coordinator with the International Association of Chiefs of Police and director of the organization's Center for Social Media, put it this way:

"If community policing is ... getting out of your car, getting out of your station, getting out of your barracks and meeting the community where they are, then social media is the same thing."

Gorban works with thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country to develop social media strategies for solving and preventing crime, communicating in a natural or man made crisis and humanizing officers.

"If there was a single incident that changed law enforcements' perspective on social media and law enforcements' use of social media," Groban said, "it was the Boston Marathon bombing."

Among the media saturation and swirl of misinformation after the 2013 bombing, the Boston Police Department used their social channels to tell the public — and journalists — what was happening and confirm that a suspect was in custody.

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But with great reach comes great responsibility, said John DeCarlo, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven and former chief of police at the Branford Police Department in Connecticut. Especially when police officers across the nation are being scrutinized for their behavior, policies, tactics — and very public misdeeds.

"It's a platform to really sway public opinion, not only about policing but about the big issues that are affecting the nation," DeCarlo said. "Social media is like a big Wikipedia. You never know if what you're reading is true."

Agencies need to be sure they aren't misinforming the public about crime statistics or police work itself, he said. Social media campaigns that are meant to promote the safety of officers, like the hashtags #thinblueline or #bluelivesmatter, could be construed as inherently political and detract from the profession's core mission, DeCarlo said.

Because social media is such a new tool, DeCarlo said academics don't have enough data to assess its impact on police work. But he predicts the good will outweigh the bad, that transparency will improve law enforcement's relationship with the community.

Social media doesn't always have to be so serious, however. Gorban said humor is one of the best ways to connect with the community. Agencies that have the most success can blend serious matters with humor, even poking fun at themselves.

He used the New Jersey State Police as an example. In April, they got a lot of laughs when they posted to Facebook a photo of a state trooper truck adorned with Dunkin' Donuts coffee and sweets.

Mmmmmm Doughnuts!Yeah, we have a sense of humor. What's troubling is that there are no troops in the photo. No cop would leave such treasure unguarded. Looks like a #CoffeeApocalypse or #ItsATrap!Posted by New Jersey State Police on Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Mmmmmm Doughnuts!Yeah, we have a sense of humor. What's troubling is that there are no troops in the photo. No cop would leave such treasure unguarded. Looks like a #CoffeeApocalypse or #ItsATrap!

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office took a similar self-deprecating approach in January when it wrote a tongue-in-cheek post owning a spelling error on a rug in its lobby that said "In Dog We Trust" instead of "In God We Trust."

We will not "sweep anything under the rug." Due to extensive interest regarding our plans for the "doggone" rug, you can...Posted by Pinellas County Sheriff's Office on Thursday, January 15, 2015

We will not "sweep anything under the rug." Due to extensive interest regarding our plans for the "doggone" rug, you can...

It seems that no Tampa Bay law enforcement agency can resist the power of the cute cat post. Agencies large and small have uploaded photos of their officers with rescued kittens or search dogs eating ice cream.

Look who turns 7 today - K-9 Bailey. And what does every girl want besides diamonds? Ice cream. Happy birthday to TPD's drug finding rock star.Posted by Tampa Police Department on Thursday, September 17, 2015

Look who turns 7 today - K-9 Bailey. And what does every girl want besides diamonds? Ice cream. Happy birthday to TPD's drug finding rock star.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has gone so far as to hire a former broadcast television producer to help them create YouTube shows called HCSO TV and Inside HCSO.

The first feels more like a news cast, and the latter highlights programs or units within the office in a more informational way, the Sheriff's Office said. The agency said it has the third most YouTube uploads of all law enforcement offices in the country.

"It really exposes the intricate networks that we have, beyond just going out there and fighting crime," said Hillsborough sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon of the agency's 4,000 employees. "We wear that hat, and that's our primary responsibility, but we belong to the community, and really that's who we report to."

McKinnon said that sharing has had an inverse effect on community policing — it gives the public a platform to share their support. At least once a week, McKinnon said he sends internal notes to deputies or supervisors with positive comments about their work that people have shared on Facebook.

"It really is a win-win for everybody," he said.

Among all the Tampa Bay area law enforcement agencies, the Tampa Police Department's social media strategy is perhaps the most comprehensive.

At all hours of the day, a member of its 12-person social media team man their social accounts. Most people don't just use social media during business hours. Tampa's social media team doesn't want to limit their engagement, either.

"It's one of the most important ways for people to reach out to us," said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis. "They can be ambassadors in our community. They can be our eyes and ears."

In August, a fan of their Facebook page recognized a suspect from an incident at a Tampa gas station and identified the man through Crime Stoppers. Tips like that flood their inbox, Davis said.

Thank you to our Facebook followers - the suspect in this case has been identified and arrested. Someone saw this video...Posted by Tampa Police Department on Thursday, August 20, 2015

Thank you to our Facebook followers - the suspect in this case has been identified and arrested. Someone saw this video...

On Friday, the department hosted a "tweet-along," a social media campaign that mirrors the ride-along. Instead of hopping in a police car to witness the job's demands firsthand, Twitter users can follow the department from noon to midnight as various officers — including Tampa police Chief Eric Ward — answer questions and live-tweet what they're doing.

"If they can sit behind the safety of their device and ask a question, we encourage that," said Officer Derek Lang, who coordinates the social media team.

It's that time again. Join us this Friday from noon to midnight.! Tweet the Chief from 1:30pm to 3:30pm #POLTWT pic.twitter.com/bsjcG26vCc

Some agencies, like the St. Petersburg Police Department, have even started using one of the newest social media platforms, Periscope, to live stream news conferences and plans to broadcast live from crime scenes.

Across the country, Groban said, agencies are finding new ways to connect through up and coming platforms, like Next Door, which creates private networks for specific neighborhoods.

As far as Groban knows, no agencies have ventured into the world of Snapchat.

Maybe, he said, that's for the best.

Contact Katie Mettler at kmettler@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @kemettler.

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