Police agencies add social media to crime-fighting arsenal

By Ed Runyan



The International Association of Police Chiefs posted information on its blog last June about extremists who use social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter to “connect, communicate, and engage.”

In 2013, social media are among the most dominant forces in our culture, so the blog tells police departments how to use them to their advantage or how to counteract the way they’re used by extremists.

At a seminar the organization presented in November, panelists stressed the “importance of using community policing and engaging community members and leaders both online and off- line to address online radicalization to violence,” the blog said.

Warren police and school officials experienced their own online radicalization five weeks ago after two homicides exactly one week apart — one involving the Oct. 19 shooting of Warren man TaeMarr Walker, 24, by a Warren police officer.

The second one, the Oct. 26 shooting death of Richard Rollison IV, 24, was committed by Walker’s brother, TaShawn Walker, 26, police said.

And that was followed by gun violence involving TaeMarr Walker’s house and searches of students at Warren G. Harding High School, followed by cancellation of that weekend’s high school football game.

“The social media and all that is still happening,” Lt. Jeff Cole, spokesman for the Warren police, said of the unprecedented football cancellation.

The Vindicator has learned through looking at the Facebook page of TaeMarr Walker that it has become a sounding board for those with grievances.

Many posts from Walker’s Facebook friends and posts from people logging on as TaeMarr Walker have contained threatening messages. It also contains what Walker wrote and photos he posted before he died.

On Oct. 30, a Facebook friend wrote: “we will get the pigs who killed our people !! taemarr walker will not have died in vain.”

On Nov. 18, posted as if it were TaeMarr Walker, was another comment referencing the Warren Police Department: “hope & pray that (deleted) burn to the ground with all them ... in it!!!!”

An article on the Federal Bureau of Investigation web- site by Capt. Gwendolyn Waters of the San Bernadino, Calif., Police Department, says the ability of Internet users to acquire birth, death and real-estate information has raised the threat level to law enforcement.

People who might have never considered making threats or outrageous remarks in person are now doing it on social media because they think they won’t get caught.

“People who have a desire for attention, notoriety or fame are attracted to it,” she said of social media. “To get noticed, they often post entertaining or provocative information.”

Waters said it may be more cost-efficient to develop solutions after social-media threats get rolling rather than opening lines of communication in advance.

However, “departments must take responsibility for protection from this threat before they become blindsided by a sudden viral attack on their officers,” she said.

Warren Police Chief Eric Merkel, when asked about Facebook threats, has said it’s difficult to prosecute them because of the difficulty of identifying the perpetrator.

Traci Rose, assistant city law director, when asked about the threats, said only that they are “under investigation.”

The police department, which experienced layoffs in 2009 and remains about 20 percent below the staffing level of 2008, worked large amounts of overtime in the weeks after the two homicides. Troopers from the Ohio State Highway Patrol also flooded the town, helping to make a key arrest involving gunfire at TaeMarr Walker’s house.

But when the second homicide occurred, raising the possibility of a retaliation killing, the department failed to make information available to the public for more than two days.

The safety-service director provided some details. And Richard Rollison III, father of the victim, gave information to the public 36 hours after his son died.

“Learn from this, and love each other, and put those guns down,” the elder Rollison said at a vigil the day after his son’s death.

The Warren Police Department Facebook page has posted five times since August, one on Oct. 30 mentioning the two homicides. “There have been many rumors being spread via social media. Again, these are rumors and posts that can not be verified,” it said. It tells people to “be aware of your surroundings” and gives the department’s phone number. The department doesn’t use any other social media.

Examples abound in larger police departments that use social media extensively.

For five years, the Baltimore Police Department has issued prompt notifications on Twitter on confirmed shootings and homicides, garnering nearly 40,000 followers.

During the Boston Marathon bombing in April, Cheryl Fiandaca, bureau chief of public information for the Boston Police Department, tweeted 10 times during the first 90 minutes of the tragedy. One post said, “Boston police confirming explosion at marathon finish line with injuries.”

Police had blocked cell- phone service after the bombings, leaving Twitter the best way to get out information, even to news sources that had begun to post erroneous information, according to the Public Relations Society of America.

When multiple news sources, including the Associated Press and CNN, erroneously reported that a suspect was in custody, the police department tweeted to set the record straight.

“We corrected a lot of misinformation,” Fiandaca said. “I think we became a very reliable, solid way to get information.”

Merkel said his department faced significant challenges in the weeks after the two homicides and didn’t have the resources to write posts on social-media sites.

“It’s something to look at,” he said.

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