Law enforcement agencies in Washington and Dakota counties have been slow in adopting social media, with only a handful of local police departments maintaining a semblance of an online presence.
The agencies are charged with policing an increasingly digitally literate population — 73 percent of U.S. online adults use social media, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. But only eight agencies from the two counties have a Facebook page, while four are on Twitter. Apple Valley and Forest Lake police have accounts on both.
St. Paul Park Police Chief Mike Monahan said his department's Facebook page, which has more than 460 likes, has been an effective tool for engaging with the community.
"I'm pleasantly surprised. I was probably the least optimistic. I was concerned about the time commitment that it would take," Monahan said. "As soon as the younger officers explain to me what Twitter is, then maybe we'll explore the idea of opening one as well."
But, most smaller departments simply lack the manpower and resources to cultivate a social media presence, said South St. Paul Police Chief Bill Messerich.
"A department our size, we're not going to be able to be as effective with Twitter or Facebook," Messerich said. "Smaller departments can't be as effective as larger departments in terms of actively updating the public on crimes. We'd love to be, but we just don't have the personnel to do that."
Still, some departments nationally have shown the value of having a strong online presence: The Boston Police Department's use of Twitter in coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent manhunt is one of the most high-profile examples of how law enforcement agencies have harnessed the power of social media to release information to the public and stamp out false news reports.
Most local police social media accounts are updated regularly, if intermittently.
South St. Paul police's Facebook page has averaged just over two posts a month over the past four months. The last tweet from the Burnsville Police Department Twitter feed was on Oct. 29.
Many of the updates focused on the lighter side of police work.
A typical post on Lakeville's Facebook page reads: "Wouldn't you rather kiss your spouse at midnight instead of your cellmate? Line up a sober ride tonight. You drink. You drive. You get caught."
Still, Messerich said South St. Paul detectives last year turned to Facebook to solve a burglary case, posting surveillance camera stills of the suspect on the social media site. The images prompted a series of tips that led to the suspect's arrest, he said. An Oct. 31 post about a woman who stole a package left on the porch of a South St. Paul home was shared 176 times.
Messerich warns of what he calls the folly of investing too much in sites like Facebook, whose popularity with younger generations has waned, given the rapidly shifting social media landscape.
"I'd like to see how things go. I am assuming that Facebook will disappear shortly and something else will replace it," he said.
Lakeville Interim Police Chief John Kornmann said, "if you look at some of things that have grown in popularity, such as Snapchat, Pinterest, there's so many out there that sometimes staying on the cutting edge of communication" can be a huge challenge.
"We are trying to figure out which one of those social medias are going to evolve into something that many of our residents are going to utilize and adapt to that," he said.
"Social media is the wave of the future. You have to be able to reach your audience. You have to figure out what the best way to do that," said Apple Valley police Capt. Mitchell Scott, who, along with another officer, runs the department's social media pages.
Larger departments active
Larger agencies have the advantage in being able to provide up-to-date information, said Brian Mueller, a commander in the investigations division of Washington County Sheriff's Office.
The Sheriff's Office, which patrols about 20 communities from Scandia to Denmark Township, has a Facebook page with 1,900 followers that is monitored by several sheriff's employees.
A recent post applauded the "quick-thinking actions of local citizens who had seen 'Washington County's Most Wanted' list on Facebook," resulting in the arrest of a woman on outstanding warrants for burglary.
The agency is continuing to look at how other departments are disseminating information on Facebook and other social media channels, Mueller said, at a time when there are growing expectations of greater accountability and transparency of police departments.
In all, eight agencies in Washington and Dakota counties have Facebook accounts — the Washington County Sheriff's Office, Bayport, Cottage Grove, Forest Lake, Woodbury, Apple Valley, Lakeville and South St. Paul — and four that are on Twitter: Apple Valley, Burnsville, Eagan and Forest Lake.
Effective to engage
A 2011 Institute for Criminal Justice Education survey of police agencies found that nearly 79 percent of respondents were active on social media.
"When we have significant events, and we have the request for information that come, rather than responding for information individually, using social media such as Twitter allows us to communicate consistently with the media," State Patrol public information officer Lt. Eric Roeske said. "Being a state agency, it works for us because of the number of media outlets we work with regularly and the need to communicate in a max way."