Law enforcement agencies across the country are turning to social media to keep people informed about everything from traffic jams to shootings.
But the Raleigh Police Department rarely uses Facebook and Twitter, and some say a social media presence would have been helpful in the aftermath of two officer-involved shootings this year and the evacuation of Crabtree Valley Mall on a busy Saturday afternoon.
Now the city is considering putting more resources into the department’s two-person communications office, which mostly distributes information through email and phone calls with the media.
“I’ve seen a major increase in the demand for information, fast,” said Raleigh police spokesman Jim Sughrue, who has been with the department about 13 years. “We may be heading to an environment in which most of our communication is through social media.”
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In the Triangle, the Apex, Chapel Hill, Durham and Garner police departments are among the most active on social media. They post photos of officers out in the community with kids and updates on criminal investigations.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department regularly posted updates on protests following the Sept. 20 police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott that drew national attention.
Some Raleigh City Council members say they’re interested in creating a position to run the police department’s social media accounts full time.
“I think it would definitely be a good investment,” said council member Corey Branch. “False information sends people in one direction that we might not want them to go down.”
Council member Mary-Ann Baldwin said the city needs “a dedicated resource who can proactively keep our citizens informed, respond to citizen concerns, quell rumors and ensure the release of timely information.”
The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement instructs agencies to develop procedures for releasing public information, but it doesn’t offer specifics for using social media, said Craig Hartley, the group’s executive director.
A University of Washington study released earlier this year found that tweets from official organizations can slow or even quash online rumors if posted in a timely manner.
Many people took to social media when Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh was evacuated Aug. 13 after shoppers reported hearing gunshots. Some people waited hours before they were allowed back on the property for their vehicles, and traffic was diverted around the mall.
“Crabtree” quickly became one of the top-trending words on Twitter.
Police did not find evidence of shots fired but could not rule them out. The FBI is analyzing recordings of the sound.
Raleigh police did use social media to post a statement by Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown after a police officer fatally shot Akiel Denkins in Southeast Raleigh on Feb. 29. Deck-Brown said police found a gun near Denkins’ body and that the State Bureau of Investigation would review the case.
The city did not use social media to relay information after an officer-involved shooting Aug. 29 that left Jaqwan Julius Terry dead. A police officer suffered a gunshot wound to the leg during the encounter.
Mayor Nancy McFarlane said it might be tough to find money in the budget to beef up the police department’s communications staff.
The city plans to spend a combined $5.2 million on body cameras for police over the next five years and is also conducting a compensation study with hopes of boosting pay for police officers and firefighters.
Public safety employees earlier this year lobbied city leaders for higher pay, saying Raleigh pays less than comparable cities. Employees then protested after the City Council didn’t grant the pay boost.
“We are always looking to improve our communications and connections to the community,” McFarlane said. “I wish we could do everything, but we have to be good stewards of the taxpayer dollar.”