Area Police Turn to Social Media

When an Amber Alert was issued for a boy who was reported missing by his foster family in Sunderland, Vt., on Monday, the Vermont State Police posted the alert on the agency’s official Facebook page.

It appears the efforts paid off: The alert was issued around 8:35 p.m., posted on social media 15 minutes later, and the boy and his mother were located by police in Lyme by 11:30 p.m.

Indeed, police said, the witness who saw the pair dining at a Hanover restaurant alerted authorities after seeing the Amber alert on Facebook, underscoring how digital photography and social media are affecting police work in the Twin States and beyond.

For instance, Vermont State Police credited a Facebook post with leading to an arrest of a suspect in a Randolph-area bank-card case.

And authorities in Claremont say the suspect in an E-Z Mart robbery last month was identified by a Claremont police officer and a former prison guard who saw a photo from a surveillance camera. Claremont Police had circulated the image, and it was subsequently posted on social media by others.

In this week’s Amber Alert, the Vermont State Police post reached more than 73,000 people, according to Facebook statistics provided by State Police spokeswoman Stephanie Dasaro. The post was “shared,” or re-linked by other individuals on their own Facebook pages, more than 2,300 times.

Vermont State Police have reached even more people through previous Facebook posts, Dasaro said, but in the case of Monday’s Amber Alert, the numbers were huge given the short amount of time that “we really had the exposure (on Facebook) while there was serious concern,” she said.

Under those considerations, Dasaro said, “that post ... was the fastest reach we had.”

Managing and enhancing the agency’s social media presence is a stated goal of the Vermont State Police. Since Dasaro joined the agency about three years ago, the Facebook account has evolved from a recruiting tool with about 300 followers to a vital instrument in active police investigations, boasting more than 17,700 followers who receive information from police and submit it.

“Social media is an opportunity to have a conversation with the people we serve, and those conversations are absolutely vital,” Dasaro said. “Not everybody gets to pick up a phone and call a trooper.”

In fact, when the boy was located, Dasaro said, her first move wasn’t to put out a traditional news release, but instead an update on Twitter.

The department even launched an account on Instagram, the photo-sharing application for smartphones, as officials try to keep a presence on the social media sites that constituents are using.

“Media today happens in a blink of an eye,” Dasaro said, “and our job is to try to keep up with that to the best of our ability.”

The boy’s mother, Patricia Kane, 49, of Manchester, Vt., has been charged with two felonies in relation to the alleged abduction. Both carry maximum five-year sentences.

Following extradition from New Hampshire, she pleaded not guilty at an arraignment in Bennington, Vt., on Friday and was held on $10,000 bail, according to a report from the Bennington Banner.

Other recent arrests in the Upper Valley also have highlighted the role of technology, including disseminating information through social media, and how police are grappling with new technologies. None of the defendants in these cases have been convicted.

Following a robbery at a retail store in Randolph last month, Vermont State Police posted a surveillance image on Facebook that they said showed the thief using stolen debit cards at an ATM. An arrest was made “based on tips from the public,” according to a state police news release that thanked the residents “who responded to the ... Facebook post.”

Police in Lebanon posted on Facebook a surveillance still off the video feed from a bank robbery in downtown Lebanon last October. Lt. Phil Roberts said the department considers Facebook to be a “valuable tool” in releasing images like composite sketches or vehicle descriptions during manhunts.

“Once our department administrator puts that out on Facebook, he can see it gets shared dozens of times or hundreds of times,” Roberts said. “It’s amazing to see how fast it can travel anywhere in the country.”

Roberts said it has slowly become the norm for police departments to have their own Facebook pages.

“We saw so many of these departments started using this four, five, six years ago,” Roberts said, “but the last two or three years, we started asking ourselves, why aren’t we using this? ... In a majority of the cases ... they say that 24- to 48-hour window is proven to be crucial.”

The flow of information goes both directions as well, he said, as residents use technology, including high-quality cameras on their cell phones, to send images to police. That was demonstrated on a large scale after the Boston Marathon bombings, when authorities culled massive amounts of data, combing through thousands of images that people posted on social media sites to piece together the scene before the bombs went off.

The Claremont Police Department is taking a different approach to social media, said Chief Alex Scott. His department doesn’t have the manpower to continuously monitor a Facebook page, he said. But the department does leverage others’ Facebook pages — such as those belonging to individuals and news organizations — to spread information on social media.

“When the E-Z Mart was robbed just a few weeks ago, the on-scene supervisor was on the phone updating the patrol captain on what had just happened, and before the patrol captain had hung up with him, it was already on Facebook and already making the rounds,” Scott said.

While Roberts said posting to Facebook gives the department more control compared to years past when they were dependent on TV and newspaper deadlines, he and Scott said they were both wary of the comments section devolving into personal attacks and invectives.

“The comments just become outrageous,” Roberts said. “Every time we put up a post like that … we monitor that, and luckily I don’t think we’ve really had anything like you would see on some big TV networks where they get 500 comments and people start going back and forth.”

Allen Gilbert, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, cautioned that police agencies should also make sure they’re not using language that “would either compromise their investigation or the right of the defendant to a fair trial.”

The public should keep that in mind when reading these posts as well, Gilbert said.

“(Suspects) still haven’t committed (a crime) in the eyes of the law until they’ve gone through the criminal justice system and there’s been a determination by either a confession or a verdict that indeed they’ve done it,” he said.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.