Beloit police fight crime with social media

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Dennis Hines | August 5, 2015

BELOIT -- The startling video shows a small, white vehicle driving into the intersection of Vine Street and Liberty Avenue in Beloit after failing to stop.

The car pulls in front of a motorcycle that crashes broadside into the car, sending the motorcyclist somersaulting through the air. The car continues on its way as if nothing had happened.

Many times there would have been few witnesses, but in this case, the hit and run was captured by a security camera installed overlooking the intersection by  a neighbor, Bob Van Smitten.

The victim survived the crash and was treated for a broken leg.

Van Smitten posted the video, which soon was shared by the Beloit Police Department Facebook page and dozens of other pages.

After following up on the leads that began to pour in, Beloit police announced Friday, July 24 that that they had located the vehicle and were investigating.

The incident illustrates how quickly social media can spread information and how law enforcement is using the Internet as its newest crime fighting tool.

In fact, police say it's a tool they can no longer do without.

"Absolutely, it's essential," said Capt. Dan Risse of the Beloit Police Department. "It's a way to reach a segment of the population we've never been able to reach before. People may not read the newspaper or watch the news, and this is a way to get information to them."

The police department uses different forms of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to inform residents about upcoming events, scam alerts and police programs. The department also posts its press releases on Facebook.

Risse said the department's Facebook page is updated each morning, often with information on police activity that happened the night before.

He said residents use the Facebook page to inform the department about activity that is occurring in their area.

"Followers may discuss trends or things that are going on in their neighborhood," Risse said. "We may adjust our patrols if people are concerned about things that are going on in their neighborhood."

Risse said some people may post negative comments on the Facebook page, but that gives the department an opportunity to respond to any misconceptions that residents may have.

"Sometimes comments get published that we don't agree with. It gives us an opportunity to respond or to dispel any rumors. People may put out information that may be untrue, but we usually put out posts to clarify it ...," Risse said. "Comments could be good or bad. Criticism is just as good as positive comments. Criticism can teach us something and it can allow us to have a conversation."

Also popular on the Facebook page are photos of lost pets brought in to the department.

Beloit Police also use Nixle.com to post press releases and other information.

"Nixle is used more for information sharing," Risse said.

Residents who have information about a crime or an investigation should call Crime Stoppers or 911, Risse said.

"Information about arrests mostly comes from Crime Stoppers," Risse said. "Facebook mostly is for general information. We may use Facebook to share information about a recovered animal or about upcoming traffic enforcement details ... If someone has information on a crime or investigation, I would still encourage them to call Crime Stoppers or 911. We don't prefer them to post tips on Facebook. Information and tips about illegal activity or crimes should go to Crime Stoppers."

YouTube videos add context

The Janesville Police Department has found success using YouTube to share videos and aid in investigations.

Police Chief David Moore says cameras also have allowed the department to provide a more complete picture of what they do.

Last year, for example, Moore said a YouTube user posted a 30-second video of a man who had been arrested after allegedly stealing jewelry at the Janesville Mall.

Some who saw the video were concerned about how the suspect was treated.

Moore said the department was able to post the full video of the incident to show what led up to the arrest.

"The 30-second video looked very concerning, but when you look at the full video -- it's a 10-minute video -- it shows the chase, the officers asking him to stop, the struggle, him going to the ground and his failure to hand over the stolen jewelry," Moore said.

"It showed when the officers tased him -- repeated times they warned him that he was going to be tased. It shows, for a number of minutes, the care the officers gave him after the fact to make sure he was OK. Ultimately, they got the stolen earrings out of his mouth, so it gave a complete account, not just showing officers tasing a black man on the ground."

The officers also use electronic billboards to publicize information about wanted suspects. Moore said several arrests have been made from the billboards.

"We were looking for a wanted person and it was up on the billboard, and the person showed up at the police department and said, 'I'm turning myself in, just get me off of that billboard,'" Moore said.

Online, the department uses Nixle, a site that distributes news from government agencies. The site also feeds to Facebook and Twitter and includes press releases about recent events, arrests, vehicle accidents and road closures. The department has more than 1,000 users signed up on Nixle.

"If you would want our press releases that's where you would go to, and you can sign up for text messages or emails or you can go to Nixle.com and search for Janesville Police Department," said Leslie Reid, administrative assistant for the Janesville Police Department. "That's our primary means of pushing out all of the information."
Moore said Nixle allows the police department to get information out to the public in a timely manner.

"On Nixle, if there's a roadway that's going to be closed, we're pretty quick to get that information out," Moore said. "If there's any time-sensitive information, it's a way for us to push it out."

The department also uses Facebook to post information about community events, scams and ongoing investigations.

"We do get tips to Facebook, and we reroute those to Crime Stoppers, so they can move forward on those investigations," Reid said. "It's a more convenient way for people to communicate if they want to share things on Facebook."

The Facebook page has about 4,500 followers and is updated regularly.

"Some days, we put up three or four posts," Reid said. "Usually at least every other day there's something new on there."

The department also uses a new website called Raidsonline.com, which includes information about local service calls.

"The community can log on and see where officers are and what they're doing," Reid said. "If you saw an officer at a house in your neighborhood yesterday and you would like to know why they were there, you could go to the website and have a general idea of what the call was for. We're sharing most of the information, but we're not sharing information if it would identify a victim or a child that was involved."
Social media has allowed the department to communicate with people of different age groups, Reid said.

"Previously, people got their information from the newspaper and television," Reid said. "We're definitely getting more feedback from the younger users, so we're trying to reach out to all the different members of the community."

Moore said the department will continue to look for more social media opportunities in the future.

"As technology changes, we'll entertain that, but right now we've got a pretty successful tool for using social media," Moore said. "I don't think we've got anything planned on the forefront right now."

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