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Friday, June 27, 2014

Facebook a crime-fighting force for Wichita police

Wichita police use social media to get tips, connect with residents

By Stan Finger
The Wichita Eagle

The call came just hours after a photo of a bank robber was posted earlier this week on the Wichita Police Department’s Facebook page.

The caller knew who it was, and she knew where police could find him.

It was just one of many tips police received after the security camera image was posted on Facebook.

On Thursday morning, 42-year-old Terry Webb was arrested at his house on Kenmar and booked into the Sedgwick County Jail on suspicion of robbing the Emprise Bank branch at 6030 E. Central on July 14.

He was charged with bank robbery Friday in U.S. District Court, and faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 if convicted.

Prosecutors allege that Webb walked into the bank branch at about 9:30 a.m., approached a teller and said, “I need $15,000.”

He put the money in a manila envelope and left the bank on foot.

Over the course of the investigation, prosecutors allege, authorities learned Webb spent part of the money to pay three months back rent and hid the rest on top of a carport at an abandoned house near where he lives.

The case, local police officials say, is the latest example of how social media has become a valuable tool in solving crimes and connecting to the community.

In about two years on Facebook, Wichita has risen to the top of the International Association of Chiefs of Police list for Facebook “likes” among police departments with between 500 and 999 officers.

In fact, with 10,363 “likes” as of Friday, Wichita ranked fourth among the largest police forces in the nation — topped only by Philadelphia, Houston and Chicago.

The growth has been “fantastic,” Capt. Troy Livingston said.

By comparison, the Kansas Highway Patrol has 3,227 “likes” and the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office has 1,967.

But the impact of having a strong presence on Facebook goes well beyond “likes,” Lt. Doug Nolte said.

“Just in terms of how people are communicating and getting their information, for us it’s been very valuable,” he said. “We’ve got some good investigative leads. People really interact with it.”

In his 20 years in law enforcement, Nolte said, he’s never seen another tool that better fit a need for communicating with the community.

Livingston said the benefits of the department using such social media outlets as Facebook and Twitter have exceeded what he envisioned when he proposed the idea in 2009.

“It’s really a vehicle for community engagement,” he said.

“We really enjoy it.”

Along with information about unsolved crimes, the department has posted such items as a tribute to a police dog that recently retired and profiles of each officer that has died in the line of duty.

“It humanizes our organization,” Livingston said.

Particularly compelling, he said, were comments posted by relatives of slain officers.

Wichita Police has 5,945 followers on Twitter, and Nolte uses the platform for updates on traffic issues, status reports on various crimes, and links to other news.

“Twitter is just more of an ongoing conversation,” he said.

As impressive as the “likes” total is on Facebook, Nolte said, he said that number can be misleading.

Just because someone has “liked” a page on Facebook doesn’t mean they’re making use of it.

Facebook has ways of measuring activity on its pages, he said.

When he compares the ratio of Facebook activity to number of “likes” — what he has dubbed “the efficiency factor” — Wichita consistently has 15 to 25 percent of its Facebook audience interacting on the site.

That’s among the best in the nation based on his informal research, Nolte said, and it shows people like having that outlet for communication.

“They can do it on their timetable,” he said, making Facebook and Twitter more effective and efficient than neighborhood meetings called on short notice.

Livingston said he has more ideas about how to make use of social media in the months ahead.

“The sky’s the limit,” he said.

“I think there’s all kinds of ways we can use this.”

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com.

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