Murray County Sheriff Gary Langford said he decided early on when he became sheriff to ramp up the office's previously nonexistent social media program as part of his overall efforts to improve communication with the public.
"When I was in the four-week sheriff school in November of 2012, (then-newly elected) Catoosa County Sheriff Gary Sisk had given me the idea that that's what he was going to do," Langford said. "When he actually started doing it, after I was in office several months we contacted him and he told us how he did it."
Langford said the sheriff's office started up a Facebook page shortly after that. It now has close to 3,400 "likes." Langford said Maj. Greg Fowler handles most of the Facebook posts and a good bit of the office's other online efforts such as putting warrants online for the first time.
The sheriff's office joins a growing trend in law enforcement, the tendency in the past few years of putting more information online. The Whitfield County Sheriff's Office doesn't have a Facebook page but does regularly update its website, www.wcso.com, where anyone with a computer can access most public incident reports, glance at an occasionally updated "Most Wanted" list and obtain other information.
The Dalton Police Department for years has actively used social media and other online options, including a regularly updated blog (www.daltonpdblog.org) that contains the latest news updates, often including information on suspects wanted for various crimes.
"For us, social media has been very successful," said police department spokesman Bruce Frazier. " ... In particular, whenever we have a case where we need information from the public, social media has been a great resource. Whereas in the past we might have to wait for a story to hit the paper or a newscast, it can be on our social media sites instantly. There have been cases where one of our investigators has gotten calls on a case less than an hour after we sent it out. It's quite useful as another layer in our communication with the public alongside the news media."
According to a 2012 research paper by LexisNexis, "Law Enforcement Personnel Use of Social Media in Investigations," four out of every five law enforcement professionals "use social media for investigative purposes." Of those, half use it at least weekly, according to the report.
The report also said agencies serving smaller populations and those with fewer sworn personnel tended to use social media less often. The media were used most often to identify "persons of interest," identify criminal activity and identify "associates and acquaintances affiliated with persons of interest," according to the report.
Langford said the department's Facebook page and its links to updated warrant lists have resulted in several people being arrested since it started about a couple of months ago. He said people were contacting his office with tips leading to arrests within the first week of putting the warrants online.
"We try to (update the warrants list) every day or at least every other day," Langford said.
Several smaller law enforcement agencies are also straying into the social media arena. The Tunnel Hill Police Department with its 670-plus "likes" uses its Facebook page to post news releases about its work as well as to share information from neighboring law enforcement agencies. The Cohutta Police Department does the same thing and also shares breaking news weather-related and other updates from local news media and official agencies, including Whitfield County Emergency Management.
Langford said commenters occasionally take to Facebook to announce their displeasure over something involving the sheriff's office, and officials try to use the platform to respond to them. Facebook is also something of a public relations platform with administrators sharing news about recently hired officers and new programs in a positive light.
At other times, the interaction is simply practical. The Murray County Sheriff's Office updated its page with information about road conditions during the recent snow and ice events.