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The department is finding Facebook and Twitter help them catch offenders as well as connect with the community.
Saturday, June 15, 2013
BLACKSBURG — Technology is leading to a new era of community policing at Virginia Tech.
Over the past two years, Tech police say using social media to post selected footage from new security cameras installed in public areas around campus has led directly to the solving of about a half-dozen cases.
While some have been small thefts or acts of vandalism, Tech Police Maj. Kevin Foust said others have been serious. At least one such posting has led to a felony charge.
More than that, the social media initiative is involving students, faculty and staff in keeping their own campus safe, and opening up new avenues for interaction with police.
“This is how our community wants us to communicate,” Foust said.
The trend began about two years ago as the department ramped up its Facebook presence, a move that boosted its “friends,” or subscribers’ list from about 2,500 to about 9,500 today, Tech police Lt. George Jackson said.
Jackson, who is in charge of the department’s social media presence and posts to the official accounts, has also put the department on Twitter, where about 3,000 people follow the police department’s 140-character updates.
At about the same time as Jackson was revitalizing the Facebook page, the university signed a nearly $1 million contract with Northern Virginia-based X7 Systems Integration to install a networked video security system in most public areas around campus — a project requested by Tech police to boost safety in the wake of the April 16, 2007, campus shootings.
The cameras are high resolution, and allow good images of vehicles and faces from long distances and, under some conditions, even at night. So far, Foust said, about 82 cameras have been installed on campus, and police hope within the next year or so the total will grow to 170.
The cameras can be monitored by the police department’s dispatch center. The digital footage is archived at the department, and its collection, storage and use is governed by a university-wide policy written to protect privacy. Locations for the cameras have been vetted by the university’s legal team, and are restricted to areas where people have no reasonable expectation of privacy, Foust said.
Tech is not the only agency using social media to connect to the people they protect. Radford University and Radford city police and the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department also maintain Facebook pages.
In fact, according to results of a 2012 International Association of Chiefs of Police survey, social media sites are becoming a common police tool.
Out of 600 law enforcement agencies in 48 states surveyed, 92 percent reported using social media in some fashion in their daily operations. The most commonly reported uses were for criminal investigations (77 percent), notifying the public of crime problems (64 percent) and community outreach (62 percent). About 8 percent of the agencies surveyed responded that they did not use social media.
The vast majority of agencies surveyed were municipal police departments. About 7 percent of survey respondents were campus law enforcement, according to the report.
Facebook and Twitter were the two most commonly used social media platforms. The report stated that 84 percent of agencies surveyed use Facebook, while 32 percent use Twitter.
Using the new security cameras in conjunction with social media to request help in solving cases has been particularly effective, Foust said. Not only is the campus community responding to the initiatives, but sometimes even suspects are helping the effort.
At about 12:45 p.m. on Oct. 26, Blacksburg police received a call about an attempted strong-arm robbery on Prices Fork Road near the Tech campus. The suspect fled, but soon after security cameras at Tech’s Perry Street parking garage caught a second robbery attempt on film.
From the footage, police harvested an image of the suspect and a vehicle. Jackson said he posted the suspect’s picture to the department’s Facebook page, and asked the campus community for help in identifying the person involved.
A few hours later a man turned himself in, and Foust said the Facebook posting was “a major contributing factor” in his surrender.
Blacksburg police charged Evan Lee Stump, 26, of Radford with attempted robbery. Stump is scheduled to enter a plea in the case next month in Montgomery County Circuit Court.
There have been other cases in which witnesses or persons of interest have either turned themselves in after their photos were posted, or friends or roommates have contacted police to identify them, Foust said.
That’s one example of Tech police sharing the advantages of their new system, and there are likely to be more. Tech has entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Blacksburg Police Department that will allow that agency access to video feeds from campus cameras that also cover areas of the town, such as College Avenue, Town Attorney Larry Spencer said.
While campus police tout the effectiveness of the crime-fighting aspects of social media and video security cameras, the effort is about more than that — it’s about building a stronger relationship with the people they protect.
More often than photos of persons of interest, Jackson posts safety tips, information about charity fundraisers, game day traffic updates and even the occasional joke.
“The Hokie nation ... they are very supportive of us as a police department,” Jackson said. “How else could a department the size of ours connect with such a large community?”
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