Bridging the gap between police and community
It all started with Throwback Thursday photos and other posts intended to help the Prineville Police Department introduce itself to the public.
The new Facebook page invited residents to view childhood pictures of various police staff and try to guess who it was. That later gave way to using the social media site to engage public assistance in tracking down criminals or providing helpful information related to police cases.
Then, when the solar eclipse in late August brought tens of thousands to and through Prineville, the Facebook site became a new avenue for providing up-to-the-minute information on everything from traffic to vehicle accidents to criminal activity.
"It just rocketed," Police Chief Dale Cummins recalls. "The people coming into town, especially those stuck in traffic … started logging onto the Facebook page."
The number of followers swelled from roughly 3,500 to more than 11,000 during the two weeks the eclipsers visited the Crook County area.
"My goal was within about five years to get 5,000 people," said Police Captain Larry Seymour, who initially spearheaded creation of the Facebook page a little more than a year ago. "I didn't think that would come quite as quickly as it did."
Cummins credits Seymour with the idea to engage the public through social media. He remembers the police captain discussing ways to reach out to the community more effectively, particularly the younger sect of the population.
"As chief, you go to the meetings, but the meetings tend to be (attended by) people older," Cummins said. "We just weren't getting anybody in the 17-40 range unless there was a really hot topic that hit them."
Though many social media sites have emerged and been embraced by youth in recent years, the police department turned to Facebook because of its widespread use in the Crook County community.
"We decided we needed to tell a story here about this department," Cummins explained. "There is so much negative going on in the United States pertaining to law enforcement and issues on law enforcement. We just felt the best way to engage our community was to humanize our department."
Seymour said the key to success was familiarizing citizens with all of the Prineville police staff. This effort began with Throwback Thursdays, a day where each week the department would post a picture of a different officer from their childhood. The citizens were asked to give their best guess on who was pictured.
"My idea," Seymour said, "was go get the citizens to know the officers by name."
Police department leaders continued to consider additional ways to initiate an exchange between the law enforcement and the public. One idea in particular drew a strong response.
"Let's throw out a bad guy we are looking for and see if we can get some engagement from that group of individuals," Cummins said. "One of those, we got such a big response that it really seemed to jump the membership."
Seymour said the case in question involved a sex abuse subject that had gone missing for roughly a couple years despite exhausting multiple resources.
"We got a lot of quick input from his victims, saying, 'Thank you for putting this up.'" he recalls. "I don't know how many days it took, but he was spotted in California at a Walmart and taken into custody," Seymour said. "It just wouldn't have been possible without the blast of social media. That's a lot of people in a lot of areas looking for someone."
The police department has since posted requests for public assistance and information on multiple cases, and the results have remained generally positive. Citizen tips have helped the agency resolve cases that have presented challenges due to limited resources.
"The citizens need to know that we have a budget, and we have to work within that budget," Seymour explained. "We respond to all of the calls, but it helps to get their involvement."
While that is the case, Cummins did acknowledge that providing information on a criminal case must be done with a measure of caution.
"If we have active cases that we are pursuing, we have to really sit down and think about the positives and negatives of releasing certain information," he said. "How do we sculpt what we are going to say so it works? If we have a serious person crime and we need help with it, I think we will post it, but we have to be very cognizant of how we go about doing that."
The solar eclipse perhaps gave the police department Facebook page its biggest boost as thousands of visitors, many of which were attending the Symbiosis festival, flooded the community. Backed by a regional emergency center, Seymour was able to enlist the help of department employees Mandi Noland and Stephanie Uppendahl and provide up-to-the-minute posts about traffic, vehicle crashes and more.
The number of page followers tripled, many of them parents of festival visitors who were having trouble communicating with them due to poor cellphone service. Some of those followers have since continued to follow the page. Cummins noted that a recent post in support of Las Vegas shooting victims prompted grateful responses from out of town and state.
"People are clearly following and seeing what's going on in Prineville, which I think benefits the whole community because as they build relationships socially, I think it will possibly bring people who want to come back," he said.
Moving forward, the police department has not made plans to expand to other social media platforms such as Twitter. They instead plan to follow the trends of the Crook County community.
"Facebook was selected because it seemed to be what the majority of the target audience was currently using," Cummins explained. "If that were to change tomorrow, I think we would just try to move with them."