NEW PORT RICHEY — They gather every night. From New Hampshire to Nevada, Alaska to Alabama — even an occasional Canadian province or country like Japan or Germany — they reply with hashtags, GIFs and, above all, confirmations that they have locked their doors for the night.
Since August, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office has taken to Twitter and Facebook every night for what it calls its 9 p.m. routine, sending posts that remind people to lock their homes and cars before they go to bed. The goal: cutting down on easily preventable burglaries.
In recent months, however, what started out as a local effort to reach residents has become a national and international phenomenon.
"We started seeing the interactions grow," said Chase Daniels, assistant executive director at the Sheriff's Office. "It used to be on a good night we'd get 5,000 to 10,000 impressions, but beginning in January you started seeing that grow."
Now the number is up to about 90,000, a product of more marketing in the community and online, Daniels said.
And it's grown beyond residents. Law enforcement agencies around the country have joined the movement, including in Kankakee, Ill.; Nampa, Idaho; and Arkansas City, Kan. Also jumping on board have been the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, the Tampa Police Department and the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.
The Bellevue Police Department in Bellevue, Neb., joined the movement two months ago after seeing a flurry of activity around the hashtag on Twitter. Roger Cox, community relations and crime prevention coordinator with the department, reached out to the Pasco Sheriff's Office and asked if it would be all right if he hopped on.
"They said, yeah, please join in," Cox said.
Since then he has adopted the proactive "lock your doors" message, imbuing it with his own GIFs and humor before tweeting it out to residents in the town of about 50,000 outside Omaha, many of whom have become active participants themselves, he said.
"Social media is an awesome tool for bridging the gap with the public," Cox said.
The online footprint is captured in a map the Pasco Sheriff's Office fills in state by state each night as it hears from around the country. Often, the Sheriff's Office fills in most of the map, and on a few occasions has shaded in every state, Daniels said.
Locally, the 9 p.m. routine has had a big impact, catching on beyond Daniels' and his team's wildest expectations. They even have started branding the social media campaign, creating key chains that are distributed in the community.
"It has been 100 percent positive," he said.
But more than the brand is the benefit to the community. Although Daniels said that by no means is the 9 p.m. routine solely responsible, auto burglaries from January to May 31 in Pasco were down 36 percent from the same time last year.
In addition to getting more people to lock their doors, the effort drives people to the Sheriff's Office social media accounts, building the agency's following. That's helpful whenever the Sheriff's Office needs to speak directly to the community, whether it's about an active warrant or a natural disaster.
"It doesn't matter why someone follows us, they're still getting that pertinent information," Daniels said.
Above all, the 9 p.m. routine has proven the power of social media to Daniels and the rest of the Sheriff's Office.
"This really shows that it can make a difference," he said. "When it comes to law enforcement and crime prevention, it really is a tool."
Contact Chris Bowling at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (813) 435-7308. Follow @chrismbowling.