How Police Use Social Media

Photo by Jennifer Peacock

OCEAN COUNTY – Everyone old enough can remember walking into a post office and seeing those black-and-white, often deranged-looking eyes staring down at us from FBI Most Wanted posters. You could also see mug shots of wanted criminals flash across the TV screen or stare up from the pile of daily newspapers.

As those audiences and consumers diminish, the brick and mortar walls or black dots and white spaces that make newsprint have been for some time giving way to virtual walls of zeroes and ones.

Today, law enforcement agencies can use those IRL spaces but they can also speak directly to the public through Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and Instagram stories. It’s both cheap and effective.

A recent report said that of those agencies that use social media, four out of five law enforcement officials use those connections to investigate crimes and collect data.

“It’s a home run for us,” Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Al Della Fave told Jersey Shore Online. Some days, his office’s Facebook posts reach 100,000 unique users. (You can be one of them by following “What more could you ask for?”

Anyone who belongs to a local Facebook group knows all too well how people complain about speeding cars, a code enforcement visit, or an unkempt yard. The human need to gossip and belong to a group is too big a pull for people to resist, although there are always a few naysaying curmudgeons in the mix, and the lurkers who read everything but say nothing.

“You’ve already got a great amount of connectivity, and people do pick up the phone if they see somebody they know. They’ll do it in a heartbeat. We found that out,” Della Fave said. Five years ago, there was no Facebook page for the Prosecutor’s Office. Today, that page has close to 22,000 followers, many of whom share information that he posts to that page. Local media outlets (including this one) follow that page, and rush to rewrite and post their own take on press releases from his office, to share far and wide.

“It keeps growing. We love it that it helps us engage the public,” Della Fave said.

Manchester Township Police Department has Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. Those are curated by Officer Joseph Fastige.

“Posts are primarily made to either request assistance from the public for various investigations, alert the public about any recent incidents, and let the public know of any upcoming traffic enforcement details. I also use social media to ‘share’ information from other departments,” Fastige wrote in an email to Jersey Shore Online. “I also found that it does not hurt to post funny police related memes or photographs of community landmarks to give people a break from the seriousness that usually comes with police work. The best thing we can do is be transparent with the community we serve and social media is the best way to achieve that goal.”

Here is just an example. The police made an arrest after posting this image on social media. Screenshot courtesy Barnegat Police Facebook Page

For instance, in their neighboring department in Lakehurst, that borough’s police foundation could have simply asked people to attend its annual golf outing, the foundation’s single fundraiser for the year. Instead, the department poked at fun at Sgt. Matt Kline’s two left hands.

“If you want to see Sergeant Kline attempt to play some golf, come on out to the Lakehurst Police Foundation’s annual golf outing. Maybe bring a helmet and some protective gear as well. We’ve seen him try to hit the ball and let’s just say, he thinks he’s better then he really is…” #KlineCantGolf

It’s obvious the technology has changed the speed with which everyone can share information, police not excluded.

“We are able to get information out faster, which means we’re are solving cases faster,” Fastige said. Smart phones keep their users connected throughout the day. “The second we post something regarding an investigation or incident, everyone who follows our social media accounts will know about it and starts spreading the word. This means that we are sharing more information now than we ever had in the past.”

For instance, the Toms River Police Department posted a photo of a man burglarizing a vehicle near Walnut Street. At press time, that post was shared from that Facebook page 753 times, and possibly hundreds more by local news outlets that write about and share that story on their web and social media pages, as well as groups on Facebook.

Barnegat Police Chief Keith Germain said that they’ve used social media to identify people or vehicles more than 25 times since they started to do it in 2011. They would post information and ask for the public’s help in cases of burglaries and thefts, as well as more serious crimes.

“Our social media following – especially Facebook – has allowed us to directly and efficiently communicate with our service population,” he said. “We now have nearly 10,000 likes on Facebook. It is not unusual for one of our posts to reach 10,000-20,000 people.”

But the department uses social media in other ways, too, for example, when they wanted to hire new officers.

“By boosting our post to New Jersey residents between the ages of 18-35 with an interest in law enforcement, we were able to generate the most applications we’ve ever received as well as the highest number of applicants from underrepresented demographics in the available workforce,” he said. “This is critically important as we continue to pursue our goal of having a police department that is representative of our available workforce.”

David Lansing runs Ocean County Scanner News. Here he is with Ocean County Sheriff Michael Mastronardy. (Photo courtesy Ocean County Scanner News)

Law enforcement can work actively or passively with other groups that don’t fall into traditional media. While Lakehurst and Manchester police departments said they don’t actively work with other groups to share information, the prosecutor’s office does see an ally in pages like Ocean County Scanner News (, which has more than 16,000 followers on Facebook. That page, among others, recently shared another group of photos, this time two women wanted in a theft by Little Egg Harbor Police. OCSN commentary is sometimes, ah, colorful, but the page keeps its followers abreast of emergency and police activity and does share law enforcement information.

Dave Lansing, who with several other assistants runs OCSN, is on Della Fave’s media contact list.

“The public needs to see the value in all this social media sharing,” Lansing told Jersey Shore Online. Lansing’s page not only shares crime-related information, but practical information as well. His team was the first to report the standoff in South Toms River on May 31. They reported in real time on their Facebook thread what was being reported via scanners before they went silent, but also let their followers know about evacuations and road closings around the area.

“Absolutely, we work with them,” Della Fave said.

Of course, it’s not all positive. There are down sides to being on social media. One of them, either because of necessity or circumstances, is that all the facts aren’t shared by law enforcement when sharing with the public. Some of that only comes to light in court that the general public won’t have access to, Della Fave said.

Photo by Jennifer Peacock

“Opinions might be clouded by that initial post,” Della Fave said. “But, you know, we try our best, as the prosecutor’s office especially, to be impartial and leave it up in the air and always put that disclaimer that ‘innocent until proven guilty.’”

And then there are the comments.

“We have found that a potential downside when posting on social media are the negative users’ comments underneath our posts. With the First Amendment, we cannot delete any comments, even if they are negative, that are posted on our social media accounts,” Fastige said. “The negative comments can sometimes distract from the initial goal of the post, whether it’s helping us look for a missing person or solving a crime.”