Police Departments Get Creative with Social Media Use

Illinois State University Chief of Police Aaron Woodruff and Laura Fox work together to manage the department's various social media accounts. (Image credit: Breanna Grow)

Illinois State University Chief of Police Aaron Woodruff and Laura Fox work together to manage the department's various social media accounts. (Image credit: Breanna Grow)

Social media users in Bloomington-Normal may have noticed an online feud between the Normal and Illinois State University Police Departments.

Normal Officer Greg Leipold insists it’s all in good fun–-and for a good cause.

Leipold took over the department’s various online accounts around the time Laura Fox began managing ISUPD’s communications three years ago. The two friends see social media as a way to show the human side of policing.

“I hope that when audience members see the humorous banter that goes back and forth, they’re like, ‘Wow, they’re kind of being a smarty pants; maybe they are just like us,’” said Leipold.

For much of the public, interactions with police are limited to being pulled over or getting a ticket. Leipold said that doesn’t leave much room for civil dialogue. Social media gives the public a chance to ask questions and get answers in a non-confrontational setting.

Illinois State University Chief of Police Aaron Woodruff said social media is especially important for a department serving a primarily student population.

“They don’t go to our website. What we hear anecdotally from students is email is just for their classes, otherwise they’re not communicating with email, so it doesn’t do us any good to put out an email newsletter or even a print newsletter.”

Instead the department uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and even Snapchat to reach students, with each platform serving a slightly different population and purpose. Normal PD is active on Facebook and Twitter as well, along with Nextdoor, a platform Leipold called “the modern-day Neighborhood Watch.”

Fox said it makes sense for the two departments to team up on social media.

“Greg and I have a population in common–there are students on and off campus and a lot of the things that we want to educate them about are the same,” said Fox. “Together we have a better chance of reaching them, and humor is always more attractive and reaches a bigger audience.”

Both departments use social media to keep followers up-to-date during emergencies and ongoing investigations, as well as invite them to participate in community events.

Woodruff said his department has seen both the positive and negative effects of the power of social media.

While social media can spread information to a large population quickly during an emergency, misinformation can spread even faster. “So if someone says, ‘There was a shooting on Willow Street, I heard a sound,’ next thing you know it becomes fact because it’s been replicated so many times,” Woodruff said.

Police departments have struggled to meet increased demand for immediate communication as social media has risen in popularity. “We can’t investigate any faster but people want the information faster,” said Woodruff. When police departments can’t release information fast enough, “The public perception is, ‘You’re not doing anything; you’re not doing enough.’”

Woodruff said social media users are often eager to help police solve crimes when it appears they’ve hit a wall. Sometimes their efforts are successful–Leipold described and incident where the department had been working on a case for over a month, but Facebook users identified three suspects in just 90 minutes.

Other times, said Woodruff, interactions on social media reveal myths community members hold about what police can and can’t do, especially when investigators use and share information posted online. “People want to have their privacy, but they’re also posting all this stuff in publicly available spaces.” Woodruff said the problem is particularly prevalent among students who’ve grown up using and sharing their experiences via social media.

Key Takeaway: Despite the potential problems, Fox said it's worth it for police departments to be active online. “We are part of the community, [social media users] are part of the community, and we have a lot to learn from each other.”