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Police Departments Use Power of Social Media to Help Solve Cases

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Police departments use "Wanted Wednesday" to publicize cases that have otherwise gone cold. (Prince George's County Police Facebook page)

Police departments use “Wanted Wednesday” to publicize cases that have otherwise gone cold. (Prince George’s County Police Facebook page)

John Domen, All News 99.1 WNEW (Credit: CBSDC.com) John Domen
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LANHAM, Md. (WNEW) — Police departments are finding out that the Internet really does know all.

“I’m glad to know that we’re beyond the conversation of police departments having Facebook and Twitter and Instagram,” says Anne Arundel County Police spokesman Lt. T.J. Smith. “We’re way beyond that.”

Whether he’s inside his office at police headquarters or sitting in a recliner at home, Smith has seen first hand how a simple online posting from his smart phone can close a case that might not have been solved before.

“It’s easy for us in our media relations unit to do it because we can do it mobile from our phones with the apps that we have available now … it doesn’t take us any time to do it,” Smith says.

Social Media Sleuths

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In fact, the department is using Twitter hashtags that bring about direct involvement with an engaged public happy to help.

In a matter of hours, tens of thousands, sometimes even hundreds of thousands of people see and share messages posted by the department asking for help in finding missing persons or someone suspected of a crime.

And it’s not just heinous crimes like rapes and murders. Sometimes it’s as simple as police obtaining a good surveillance photo a purse thief at a local shopping mall.

“We had one in particular,” says Smith, talking about a case last week, “it was 47 minutes from the time we posted it to the time the detective confirmed the person’s identity.

“Now that name had been on our comments list in 10 or 15 minutes,” allowing the detective to go back and double check to confirm the suspect’s name in less than an hour.

“We had one, ended up being a juvenile, 15 minutes. A family member saw him, turned him in. Fifteen minutes we had it solved.”

In those cases, Smith reaches out to followers with the hashtag #SocialMediaSleuths. Today, you’ll see a lot of departments talking about their #WantedWednesday campaigns.

“Wanted Wednesday is a feature we started about six months ago,” says Prince George’s County Police spokeswoman Julie Parker. “From our vantage point, we put out things we think that guy walking down the street is going to respond to and pay attention to.”

Normally, the Wanted Wednesday cases departments are publicizing have otherwise gone cold.

“Our investigators come to us and say, ‘We need help, what can you do to get the public to pay attention?’” says Parker.

“We put it out there on social media, whether it’s a video or a photo, and our community responds.”

She says tips to Crime Solvers have gone up 18 percent, and some of that is attributable to engagement through social media.

Anne Arundel County Police started its Wanted Wednesday campaign two weeks ago, and already it’s paying off.

Each week the department profiles “about five of our most wanted,” Smith says. “We’ve profiled 10 people, one of which has been arrested, and I think we actually have a lead on another one.

“These are people that have been wanted for an extended period of time.

“They’ve kind of gone underground already, so now we’re turning to another format to try to find out where they are. Out of 10 people, if we have a 30 percent success rate I think that’s actually good … looking at it, if we hadn’t done this, it’d it would have been a zero percent success rate.”

WNEW’s John Domen contributed to this report. Follow him on Twitter.

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