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Fairfax County police tap social networks to nab criminals

By Gregg MacDonald
Fairfax County Times
Thursday, April 29, 2010; VA18

The newest crime fighting tool in Fairfax County police's arsenal isn't a faster cruiser, more manpower or a more sophisticated radio system.

It's Facebook.

Following a trend among law enforcement agencies, county police are embracing the social networking Web site as an efficient, cost-effective way of interacting with the public. County police also are employing cellphone technology, such as text messaging.

"Social networking has become one of the top forms of communication around the world," said Fairfax County Public Information Officer Shelley Broderick, who has been given the task of managing the department's Facebook page. "People log on to these sites daily, so I can put information out there, including wanted posters and fugitive updates, and potentially have them be seen instantly by millions."

According to a recent Nielsen survey, Facebook, the preeminent social networking site, boasted more than 400 million members worldwide. In the past few years, social networking sites have become increasingly popular among all ages.

On April 7, Fairfax County police joined those ranks. Since the page's launch, about 1,000 people have become "fans" of the site, police spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said.

In support of the police initiative, the nonprofit Fairfax County Crime Solvers launched a Facebook page in March. On its main Web site and Facebook page, Crime Solvers -- a volunteer organization that helps Fairfax police in apprehending fugitives and other at-large suspects -- regularly posts photos of parents who are accused of failing to pay court-ordered child support.

"Web sites are tools for getting information out to the public, but they are primarily a one-sided form of communication," said Broderick, who also coordinates Crime Solvers' online presence as its police liaison. "Social networking sites are wonderful because you can see the comments people put up. If somebody recognizes a fugitive, they have the ability to immediately come right back and say, 'Hey, I know this person and I know where they are.' "

The initiative has not drawn the ire of civil liberties groups.

"It doesn't seem very different than posting wanted posters in the post office or airing the television show 'America's Most Wanted,' " Kent Willis of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia said. "My Big Brother radar doesn't really go off on this."

"In my opinion, the positive benefits in our efforts to apprehend lawbreakers far outweigh any perceived negatives," Broderick said. "To my knowledge so far, we have not gotten any negative feedback about our page or the way we use it."

The county's Facebook page has not contributed to an arrest yet, but the precedent is there.

Within a month of creating its page, Virginia State Police credited its Facebook fans in the apprehension of a fugitive. The agency has more than 16,000 fans.

"We were looking for a fugitive in Smith County that had run from our troopers," spokeswoman Corrine Geller said. "We put up the information up on Facebook and immediately got an outpouring of information."

Geller said the fugitive was apprehended in Loudoun County hours later.

"We got phone calls, e-mails, you name it," she said. "It was so overwhelming that my sergeant asked me what I had done to get such a response."

In addition to using social networking sites, county police introduced the Community Emergency Alert Network on April 19. The system alerts Fairfax residents who subscribe to it of police matters in specific neighborhoods.

"People can go to our Web site and register one or more addresses, such as their home, their office or even their child's school," said Maryann Jennings, director of public information for Fairfax police. "Then, when there is any police activity in proximity to the registered addresses, those people will receive an alert through their e-mail or mobile device, letting them know what is going on."

"The public is very connected by e-mails and texts these days," Caldwell said. "When local incidents occur, rumors can start and quickly get out of hand. With this system, we can immediately get the truth out to those who may be most affected."

"Social networking and instant communication technologies are here to stay," Broderick said. "We are just trying to utilize them for the public good."

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