When Superstorm Sandy sideswiped the region several weeks ago, people were looking for news and information in real time.
Hundreds of them got it on the social media pages of the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office.
“We started out with 174 followers that night, and by the end of the storm, we had 3,000 people,” said Administrative Capt. Michael P. Dunn.
“We’ve had a page [on Facebook] for a while, but we didn’t really have a plan of how to use it,” Dunn said. “Now we are trying to keep the information fresh. We know if we don’t do that, people are not going to follow it.”
The superstorm – and the success several departments across the state have had solving crimes, while informing taxpayers about police work – have created a surge in interest regarding use of social media in police matters.
The State Police announced its foray into that world last week with new Twitter and Facebook sites at facebook.com/nyspolice and on Twitter @nyspolice.
“We are able to serve New Yorkers on a whole new level,” State Police Superintendent Joseph A. D’Amico said. “Facebook and Twitter give us a chance to directly communicate with the people we serve every day. Not only will we be able to get important public safety information out quickly, but New Yorkers will also get to know more about what our troopers do in their communities.”
In Niagara County, the Sheriff’s Office is leading the charge into online law enforcement.
The agency has had a Facebook site for the last three years, but just recently began a concerted effort to make the site interactive by answering questions and providing real-time updates and news on its pages at facebook.com/niagarasheriff or on Twitter @niagarasheriff.
“When Hurricane Sandy came, we really ramped it up. We had four or five administrators with the ability to change and update the site,” said Sheriff James R. Voutour.
Voutour posts about 75 percent of the updates, Dunn said. The sheriff agreed that when necessary information is to be disseminated, he’s likely to pick up his cellphone and post something.
“Hopefully, I know everything about everything, so it’s easy to put something on Facebook in a few seconds,” Voutour said. One weekend last month, for instance, he was in the office on an icy night and heard a number of car crashes and made a post to warn about slippery roads.
Dunn said the Sheriff’s Office now has 3,800 followers who have “liked” its Facebook page and receive regular updates.
On Black Friday, anyone who wasn’t shopping could follow deputies across the county in “a virtual ride-along” on the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift. Three administrators posted each call that came in and put up photos and, in some cases, video, as well as information about how calls are dispatched and what kind of special equipment is in patrol cars. Dunn said the page has seen a 127 percent increase since the ride-along started.
“It’s not something we can do all the time. It took a lot of effort and manpower,” Dunn said, “but we were very happy about how it went. It was very successful.”
Dunn said the department has been getting a lot of requests for another one and hopes to host a second ride-along in the future.“It’s a start; we are hoping to build on it,” Dunn said. “We hope to make ourselves partners in the community.”
Dunn and Voutour said this type of interaction gives the Sheriff’s Office “transparency,” allowing the community a window into their everyday world. “We want to promote what we are doing,” Dunn said.
Voutour said that on the night of the ride-along, the department had six patrol cars on the road and received 109 calls. The department couldn’t get everything on the website, he said, but hopefully the community saw how deputies handle a typical night.
Unlike a scanner, through which listeners just hear a call go out, deputies also tried to inform followers how cases were being resolved, Voutour said.
“For so much of our society, ages 10 to 40, social media like Twitter, websites and Facebook are their primary news source,” Voutour said.
“More and more people are involved in social media,” Dunn said. “Now people are getting their information immediately, and the best part is not only that it travels quickly, but your outreach is much larger as people share links.”
Dunn said the Sheriff’s Office wants to continue to expand its online presence. The next thing deputies would like to offer, he said, is updates from shift supervisors that recap any major calls or arrests that occurred on their shifts. “Our goal is to post something three to four times a day,” Dunn said.
For those interested in lengthier reports and real-time news, the Sheriff’s Office also participates in a statewide service called “NY Alert,” posting full news releases about recent arrests, criminal activity and other police information.
App is being developed
Voutour said the department currently is developing a Sheriff’s Office app for mobile devices, using the national victim notification network VINE, or Victim Information and Notification Everyday. The app will offer updated information on who is currently incarcerated and give followers the ability to be notified when someone is released, as well as maps, news alerts and directories with links to law enforcement agencies and attorneys.
“We will be the first sheriff’s department offering an app. It will be a very big deal,” Voutour said.
Undersheriff Michael J. Filicetti said, “We are just trying to keep up with technology. In the past, we would be at a crash site with pen and paper. Now they are out there shooting with lasers and putting 3-D images in computers.”
With the new technology, Voutour said, the public will also become more aware of how the growing populations in the towns are affecting deputies, who see increasing calls while being forced to work under decreasing budgets.
“We are seeing a greater need for our services,” Voutour said. “This shows people what we are doing and how we are doing it.”