Sheriffs across the state are using Facebook to help improve public safety, boost public relations, track down suspects and collect constituents’ feedback.
“A lot of sheriffs’ offices have pages,” said Grimes County Sheriff Donald Sowell, president of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas. “A lot don’t. I don’t know why. I think it’s a very good tool.”
Facebook allows sheriffs to communicate directly and almost immediately with thousands of followers, the growing number of Texans who rely upon social media for news and information. The social media platform helps sheriffs perform the duties of their office while educating the public about their work and building deeper connections with the community.
Lessons from a few sheriffs who have spent time in the social media trenches can serve as inspiration for those who haven’t yet taken the leap.
Improved Safety and Understanding
Many sheriffs’ offices routinely use Facebook to alert the public about traffic accidents, road closures, flooding and other serious events with good results. “Facebook’s really made a difference for us,” said Karnes County Sheriff Dwayne Villanueva. “When the Eagle Ford Shale was really booming we were dealing with a lot of road closures, gas fires, explosions. It was quicker to notify the public through social media versus the radio or (weekly) local paper.”
Many also inform the public through posts about the official duties of the sheriff’s office and highlight the full range of services it provides. “It helps educate the public about what the office does,” Villanueva said. “We’re not all about giving speeding tickets and arresting people. We’re about public safety.”
During mid-March flooding, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office posted details about flooded roads and houses, and announced that deputies would stop cars in those areas to inquire if passengers had a reason for being there. “That was very helpful for us,” said Sheriff Keith Merritt. “We learned that by getting the word out in that way we had almost zero problems with looting.”
Posts during emergencies are a public service, Sowell said, adding, “With the wildfires we had in our county, immediate updates were appreciated. The public loved it.”
Upshur County Sheriff Anthony Betterton has used his office’s Facebook page to alert readers to phone scams. “This way, when we get a report in here we can put it out as soon as we get the info so they can be aware of it,” he said.
Many sheriffs’ offices also post photos of people who are wanted for questioning or who are suspects in criminal cases – and even share video surveillance camera footage of crimes being committed. Posts like this help increase the number of tips the offices receive, which can lead to arrests.
Public Information and Public Relations
Facebook also allows sheriffs’ offices to inform the public about their activities and staff accomplishments through regular “newsy” posts that in pre-social media days would have been shared only through a press release.
The Orange County Sheriffs’ Office posts photos and details of staff promotions and commendations, putting faces to names. “That way the public know who to contact if they have any information they want to pass along,” Merritt said. “It’s a big plus. It goes back to just being transparent.”
The office also shares photos and the results of its drug busts. “We like to let the public know that we’re working,” Merritt said. “You have to sometimes pat yourselves on the back.” He added that sharing such information has “without a doubt” increased the public’s awareness of what the office does. “I think they appreciate what we’re doing,” he said.
Upshur County also reports news about drug arrests on its Facebook page. “We’re putting stuff out like a media report,” Betterton said. “We’re providing some information about what’s going on in the county. Newspapers are a dying breed and everybody wants it on social media. People here really want to know what’s going on in the community.”
Sharing this news on Facebook not only informs constituents but also journalists who regularly mine social media for story ideas.
Real People behind the Badge
Humorous posts and photos documenting community involvement can help show the human side of law enforcement. To raise money for a Relay for Life event, a recent Grimes County Sheriff’s Office Facebook post stated Sowell had been “arrested” for impersonating Sheriff Andy Griffith (of Mayberry fame) and encouraged readers to click over to the charity’s donation site to make a contribution toward his “bond.”
“Little things like that are so unique,” Sowell said. “Every sheriff ought to do that, just add a personal touch. It just lets people connect with you.” Sowell said they also post photos of him in classrooms reading with students. “I think it’s just an easy tool for any sheriff to reach out and let the public see what they’re doing in a positive way.” Upshur County deputies also read to children and share the photos on Facebook. “We’re trying to keep the public informed about what’s going on at the sheriff’s offices and let them see we do a lot of good in the county,” Betterton said. “We try to give the positive side of what law enforcement is doing.”
Don’t have an office Facebook page? Set one up. If you haven’t yet created a Facebook page for your sheriffs’ office or other county office, now’s the time. “If you’re a sheriff from the old school, 30 years back, and one of your younger troops comes in and wants to do a Facebook page, you need to be open minded to it,” said Betterton. “It’s a tool that the public is using now and it’s a good tool to get info about to the public and the citizens of our county.”
Betterton said it took his staff a long time to convince him to climb upon the social media bandwagon. His office created a page in January. “The positives outweigh the negatives right now,” he said. “The general public in northeast Texas have been real positive and we’ve had good feedback from it.”
“I think everybody is into social media now,” Sowell said. “A lot of people don’t read the paper like they used to, especially the younger generation. (Using Facebook) lets them know who the sheriff is, what the sheriff does.”
Villanueva suggests collecting public input when setting up an office page. “Check with the public and ask what do you want to see what do you don’t want to see. Ask at your Rotary, Chamber, and community meetings.”
Designate more than one person to post. Two staff can post on the Grimes County Sheriff’s Facebook page. “I have my secretary and my administrative lieutenant and anybody can feed info to them. We three review it and decide what to post,” Sowell said
Villanueva said he designated a staff member to be in charge of posts. “It’s impossible for a sheriff to do his own Facebook, we’re so busy,” he said. “I would highly recommend you designate one individual from your department. Get with them about what you want and what you don’t.”
Post frequently, but avoid political postings and sensitive information. “Stay nonpolitical,” Sowell said. “You don’t want your posts to be taken out of context. You want to do it for information reasons, not political reasons.”
Details about ongoing investigations shouldn’t be shared on Facebook either, said Betterton. “If you put something on there, it’s out there,” he added. “You can’t bring it back. It can spread like wildfire.”
Monitor the page closely and respond promptly to questions and comments. Depending on their size, not all sheriffs’ offices have the ability to monitor their page 24/7, but keeping tabs on it as frequently as possible is good practice. “Monitor it and be active on it,” Betterton said, adding that the office should respond promptly to readers’ posts and questions.
While his office is not always able to monitor its page around the clock, staff check it during working hours. Betterton responds to any inquiries that come in via the page during the evening on his smartphone or with a follow-up call the next day. “The worse thing to can do is to put it (a Facebook page) out there and not respond to it.”
Welcome public feedback. “Encourage the public to give feedback on what’s going on in their community,” Betterton said, while directing them to 911 to report emergencies. “If you have a good positive working relationship with your community you’ll have a lot of good positive feedback.” Know that you may get negative comments on your page, too, he added. “You have the ability to take those negative comments out, but sometimes those negative comments might be a help. We can check further into it to see if the negativity is warranted.”
The Texas Counties Deliver public information campaign aims to improve the public’s understanding of county government and the essential services it provides Texans. This is one in a series of articles highlighting how Texas counties are sharing the county story with the public. Need ideas for how you can share the good news about your county?
See www.county.org/texascountiesdeliver for ideas and resources. Let TAC know how what you’re doing. Email us at . Texas Counties Deliver. It’s time to spread the word!