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Despite national and local trends, no social media for Gwinnett police

LAWRENCEVILLE — Even among law enforcement, social media has gone viral.

In a new study released last week by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, more than 74 percent of the 500 agencies surveyed said they use programs like Facebook or Twitter to tell the public about crime problems. Seventy percent said they use it for other community outreach.

Nancy Kolb oversees the IACP’s Center for Social Media. Authorities have long used social media as part of investigations — to snoop on suspects and make crucial connections, mainly — but the fact that Kolb’s job even exists is a testament to its continued growth in official, publicly seen capacities.

“Social media has a lot of benefits (for law enforcement), namely engaging the community,” she said. “It’s a great way to reach out to the community where a lot of us spend a significant amount of time.”

Nearly every major police department in the Atlanta area uses Twitter or Facebook or both. Several of Gwinnett’s city agencies do as well.

One of the state’s largest and most respected departments, though, does not have a social media presence: The Gwinnett County Police Department is a cyber no-show.

A county official confirmed this week that GCPD leaders have asked for permission to use social media in the past. Those requests have been denied, however, and the department with 700-plus sworn officers, more than 800,000 residents to protect and a jurisdiction covering 436 square miles has had to go without.

The specific reasons for denial weren’t clear. A police spokesman deferred all comment to the county.

“With the exception of the Environmental & Heritage Center and (Gwinnett County) Transit, the departments that report to the County Administrator are not authorized to use Facebook, Twitter or other social media outlets to officially interact with citizens,” county spokesman Joe Sorenson said in an email. “We continue to monitor how other governmental agencies use various forms of social media and the implications of the use.”

So what exactly is the Gwinnett County Police Department — and the people it serves — missing?

The Snellville Police Department is believed to be the first law enforcement agency in the county to implement Facebook and Twitter. What began about two years ago has morphed into (generally) twice-daily postings that cover everything from traffic alerts and “help us find this suspect” to law-related jokes. Residents are able to post or send tips, concerns and questions in a less intimidating manner.

Snellville PD has about five administrators who help out with the pages whenever needed, Capt. Greg Perry said. He said the effort has helped foster a better relationship with the public.

“It definitely allows for more of a casual interaction with our police department and the public,” Perry said. “They seem to feel like they have the ability to contact us more freely on the computer.”

The Duluth and Norcross police departments also use Twitter and Facebook, as do the departments in the city of Atlanta (which has separate accounts for traffic and each precinct), DeKalb County and Fulton County (sheriff’s office and fire). The law enforcement agency most comparable to Gwinnett County police, though, is the Cobb County Police Department, which has more than 600 sworn officers and serves about 700,000 people.

Sgt. Dana Pierce said CCPD has had Facebook and Twitter accounts — as well as a separate email notification system — for more than a year. He said increased communication with the public has been invaluable.

“Having that two-way communication with your community can be advantageous to your department when it comes to investigating a crime or putting out information to the public regarding major road detours because of a crash,” Pierce said. “Or it could possibly help put the community at ease when you’re talking about working a homicide.”

In the IACP’s national study, just over 73 percent of the agencies surveyed said that social media has improved police-community relations in their jurisdiction. More than 80 percent said it had helped solve crimes.

There are some concerns, however.

Liability, privacy and security fears were among those listed by surveyed agencies not currently using social media. More than 44 percent said their greatest concerns were time and personnel constraints.

“While it’s free to start a Facebook account or a Twitter account, it does require resources to manage it. And that can be a big challenge,” Kolb, the IACP social media guru, said. “In order to do social media well, it really does take an investment, with responding to comments, posting, being able to allocate those resources.”

That said, nearly 63 percent of agencies that are using social media said five or fewer manhours were devoted to the task each week. A total of almost 83 percent said 10 hours or fewer were used.

“We definitely don’t have the ability to hire somebody that can do that full-time,” Perry said, “but with so many administrators, if something does come up we typically have the ability to get something out.”

Maj. Jackie Hood, the social media gatekeeper for Duluth police, said the task was “not a lot to keep up with.” Outside of a quickly abandoned endeavor into Facebook last year, her department has had Twitter and Facebook accounts for just a few months.

Hood said she uses the new pages mostly to push information out, and that feedback has been almost exclusively positive.

The decision to increase the department’s online presence was a no-brainer.

“The chief wanted to get more in line with what other police departments were doing,” Hood said.