Toledo Police cracking down on crime, connecting with community

Back in March, TPD put out an alert for suspected murderer DeShone Sykes. That post was shared more than a thousand times.

Every day, regular people are helping solve crimes due in large part to social media.

Police departments across the country are developing their online presences.

Toledo Police uses Facebook and Twitter to share what they're doing with the community.

"We've got a little over 70,000-70,500 [followers] on Facebook and 14,200 on Twitter," said Sgt. Joe Heffernan. "When I put it out there, it's to almost 85,000 people right off the bat. That's pretty good for us. Since there's only 280,000 people in the city, to have that kind of reach is pretty impressive."

Sgt. Heffernan is in charge of TPD's social media. He spends around 3 hours every day updating the department’s Facebook and Twitter.

"It is kind of time-consuming. It can take me several hours a day sometimes to answer messages, put up posts, go out and make sure we are following up on what we need to follow up on as far as the messages go," explained Heffernan.

Back in March, TPD put out an alert for suspected murderer DeShone Sykes. That post was shared more than a thousand times.

"It generated a lot of interest and a lot of people were tagging him in the pictures," said Heffernan. "He was actually responding back. I think he felt the overwhelming pressure and actually later that night turn himself in. So that was a win-win. We didn't have to go arrest that violent suspect that had just committed murder. The pressure of the social media was great enough for him to just come in on his own and he turned himself in."

Heffernan says it's not uncommon for criminals to turn themselves in to get out of the public spotlight.

Dr. Philip Stinson is a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University.

"Social media is a police officer's best friend in recent years, especially Facebook," said Stinson. "It's a huge tool for investigators. Crimes are being solved on a regular basis using Facebook. You can have a missing child and put the photograph out and it goes viral in a matter of minutes. You couldn't buy that kind of press coverage."

It's not just about getting the word out. The police department also receives about a dozen messages every day.

"I would say the majority of the messages I get every day from Facebook are people that probably would not have called police," stated Heffernan. "We follow up on every one of the messages. A lot of times it's a neighborhood dispute or somebody's getting bullied on Facebook. We get a lot of juveniles, students that send us a message saying, "I'm being bullied at school. I don't know what to do." So I get them in touch with the school resource officer to handle that situation. That's maybe somebody who wouldn't have called."

"A lot of people are really intimidated by dealing with officers they don't want to interact directly with an officer on the street," said Stinson. "They don't want to approach an officer. They don't want to be seen necessarily approaching an officer and don't want to call them on the phone. So it's very easy to send someone a message on Facebook."

For many departments, social media isn't all about catching criminals. A 2016 Urban Institute law enforcement study shows 85 percent of police departments use humor at least some of the time on their pages to interact with residents.

"They can have a page that's much more official and deals with more serious things," explained Stinson. "They can have accounts that deal with lighter things or ones that feature different officers or put more of a human face on officers that work there. Again it costs them nothing for the different accounts. So they really can craft their own image in that regard."

"It's been really beneficial for the police department," said Heffernan. "It's kind of changed the dynamics a little bit in how we are viewed by the public. Certainly I think people view us as being more accessible which is good. It allows us to put some of our messages out there that may be weren't being put out there before. There's a lot being done at the Toledo Police Department. There's a lot of juvenile programs we participate in and sponsor. There's a lot of community policing aspects to our department that I think a lot of people aren't aware of. So if I can put some of those out there every day and let everybody know the services we have and how we can assist them, it goes a long way to keeping a popular opinion of the police department and that's very important."

Toledo Police is looking for feedback from residents.

There's an online survey. It's confidential.

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