When Anne Arundel County, Md., police announced that they had arrested a man for snatching a pocketbook in a mall parking lot, five people gave them a thumbs-up. Others wrote congratulatory messages, including “Hooray for the Good Guys!!” One woman hoped police would have similar luck catching the man who nabbed her sister’s purse. These concerned citizens shared their thoughts with the police not in letters or at a town hall meeting but on the department’s Facebook page, reports the Baltimore Sun. Police agencies around the world are using online social media to publicize murders, road closures and arrests or collect tips and comment. Citizens are responding, rattling off opinions with rare candor.
“Part of our crime-fighting plan is community engagement,” said Baltimore City police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, who created the department’s Twitter page. “These social networking sites are a great tool to have a community meeting without actually going to a meeting. I also want it to be a tool where people can get information in real time.” Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University Maryland Baltimore County who studies social networking, said “it’s kind of creepy” for authorities to be on areas of the Internet normally used for exchanges between friends. “These sites assume a relationship of equals, they have always been places where you keep in touch with and stay engaged with your friends and acquaintances,” Tufekci said. “This is sort of like inviting police in uniform to your party.” Impostors can cause problems for police. After complaints from authorities in Texas, Twitter employees removed an account that fraudulently claimed to belong to the Austin Police Department and gave phony updates on shootings and speed traps. Maryland State Police are displeased with a Facebook page that bears their emblem although it is not associated with the agency.