Social media, a powerful tool for Martha’s Vineyard police departments

Island police are using the platforms not only to fight crime, but to build relationships with their communities.

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Officer William Bishop, left, points to the Edgartown Police Department's social media analytics. Chief David Rossi is at right. — Stacey Rupolo

In the recent years in the U.S., the relationship between police departments and the people in their communities has been marred on both sides by mistrust and violence. But on the local level, police departments like those on Martha’s Vineyard have been fostering positive engagement — and getting leads on crimes, or finding missing people — through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

There are 1 billion people on Facebook on the planet; 68 percent of all adults in the United States use it — 76 percent of them use it daily — according to the most recent social media study by the Pew Research Center. Twenty-eight percent of U.S. adults use Instagram, and 21 percent use Twitter. Over half of Internet-using adults, about 56 percent, use more than one social media platform.

Chief David Rossi and Officer William Bishop of the Edgartown Police Department, in a recent interview with The Times, said they use social media to get information out to the public that’s timely and accurate. The Edgartown Police Department puts out crime tips and general information, uses it for ongoing investigations, posts events, and highlights positive things they do that sometimes people wouldn’t otherwise discover — like their recent turkey giveaway for Thanksgiving, or their senior luncheon.

“If we have a major event, it’s on Facebook before we can make any kind of press release or get the information out,” Chief Rossi said. “Sometimes it’s even on there when we’re at the scene. That’s how quick social media is.”

In dealing with more serious events, police will sometimes post information to social media right from the scene. In August, for example, an unmanned boat crashed on Eastville Beach at 3 a.m., and Oak Bluffs police, seeking leads or any information, posted photos and information from the scene. Other Island departments then shared their post, and an arrest was made that morning.

Edgartown’s Officer Bishop monitors and manages the department’s social media accounts, on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. He said that starting about a year ago, they took a stronger approach, posting multiple times a day.

“I think it’s by far one of the better things we’ve done in the past year, as far as reaching more people and letting them know what we do here,” Officer Bishop said.

Police departments around the region are also increasing their use of social media. The Bourne Police Department has about 63,000 Facebook followers (in a town of 19,754 people), and Falmouth (population: 31,531) has about 8,000. Edgartown (population: 4,067) has 4,000 followers, while Oak Bluffs (population: 3,735) has 3,000. But Officer Bishop said it’s not just based on numbers of followers; he also monitors how people interact with their page by looking at the number of views, likes, comments, and shares.

Community-based departments, such as the ones on the Island, are now reaching a wider range of people through social media. For the Edgartown Police Department’s Facebook page, the majority of the people who follow it are ages 25 to 54. About 5 percent are 18 to 24 years old, and it’s around the same percentage, give or take, for people over 55.

In order to engage with harder-to-reach demographics, it’s important to evolve as the landscape changes for social media, according to Officer Bishop. He has been working on their Instagram account, which is most popular with a younger demographic, and tries to get information out on all three platforms to have as wide a reach as possible.

Although he’s considered using Snapchat, as some departments around the country have, Edgartown hasn’t gotten on board yet. Officer Bishop said that maintaining a presence on social media requires time and work, and the platforms that a department chooses needs to be worth that effort.

As a balance to more serious posts and as a way to engage followers, Officer Bishop likes to post fun and lighthearted pictures, like “Throwback Thursday” photos from Edgartown police in the 1950s. He also frequently posts sunrise and sunset photos.

“There’s fun stuff to keep people interested in the page and checking in with it, so that if we do have to post something important, they’re going to see it and it’s going to get shared fast,” Officer Bishop said.

Using social media and incorporating it with community policing has helped departments deal with various issues in the community — missing persons, drug arrests, shoplifting cases, and breaking and entering are some of the more salient ones.

This summer there was an elderly man who, after going to the restroom in an Edgartown restaurant, went missing. The police department posted alerts on their social media, and within two hours, someone had spotted the man on the ferry to Woods Hole.

Chief Rossi said it all came down to positive engagement with the community. Communicating with the public through social media gives the community the opportunity for their voices to be heard, to get involved, and even help.

“A lot of people are out there who are willing to help,” Chief Rossi said.

Chief Erik Blake of the Oak Bluffs Police Department (OBPD) also spoke about the importance of community policing and evolving with social media in a recent interview with The Times, as the department tries to widen its reach with the community.

Chief Blake spoke about the need for “checks and balances” — that a department has to weigh the privacy concerns of putting a picture of someone or a person’s information on social media with the goal of finding a missing person or notifying the public about a crime.

Because people in the community are relying on the department’s information, OBPD has a policy that posts must be cleared by the chief, the lieutenant, or one of the detectives before it gets posted, in the same way that any information or a press release would have to be approved.

“It’s a great tool, but it needs to be vetted,” Chief Blake said.

With thousands of followers, it’s important to foster a good relationship on social media, keeping open the lines of communication with accurate information and timely responses to users’ questions or concerns.

One thing Chief Blake hopes to do in the future is what he called a “tweet-along,” essentially a social media ride-along, where an officer tweets out every call in a four-hour block, so people can see what they do.

Social media is a crucial tool that opens the lines of communication between Island police departments and the community. Chief Blake said it came down to education — and understanding the various ways police interact in the community.

“With community policing, it’s important we don’t tell the public how they’re going to be policed,” Chief Blake said. “They get to tell us.”

Many of the people serving in the Island’s six police departments are Vineyard natives and active members of the community. Chief Blake, Chief Rossi, and Officer Bishop all grew up here. The community means something to them, and social media allows them to foster that relationship.

“I think especially nowadays, where police have taken a pretty good hit in national media,” Officer Bishop said, “it gives people in our community a chance to see that we’re people first, who live here in this community, and we’re also police officers.”

“It’s what small towns are all about,” Chief Rossi said. “The more we can engage with the community, the better we are.”