Facebook an essential crime-fighting tool for local agencies

Allen WorrellEditor

April 8, 2013

In many cases, time is of the essence for law enforcement agencies. Thanks to the ever-growing popularity of Facebook, the world of fighting crime has gotten a lot easier.

Both the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office and Hillsville Police Department now have their own Facebook pages, and both have used them to get time-sensitive material to the public instantaneously. In particular, the Hillsville Police Department has found the social media website to be quite an efficient crime-fighting partner since launching its Facebook page on Jan. 24 of this year.

Hillsville Police Chief Greg Bolen quickly found out the power of Facebook as one of the department’s first posts was a wanted photo of Raymond Allen Rosier, who was wanted on malicious wounding charges stemming from a stabbing in the parking lot of Three Cheers on Jan. 31.

Before Rosier’s Feb. 10 arrest in Wythe County, the Hillsville Police Department received numerous tips about Rosier’s whereabouts due to the department’s Facebook post, which was shared by the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office and many other agencies and citizens.

Less than a month later, the Hillsville Police Department was able to solve a gas drive-off from Race-In in Hillsville after video stills of the suspect was posted on the HPD Facebook page asking for help identifying the suspect. The post was viewed over 21,000 times, Bolen said, resulting in six anonymous phone tips and two more Facebook tips within a 24-hour period. While the owner of Race-In declined to prosecute the suspect, the man was apprehended within a short period of time and made to pay full restitution to the business.

“The great thing about Facebook is that is 21,000 extra bodies helping out doing work that I don’t have to pay overtime for essentially,” Bolen said. “It is a testament to the citizens that want to help solve these crimes. Right now it is becoming a great tool in our crime prevention arsenal.”

The Carroll County Sheriff’s Office launched its Facebook page on Aug. 21, 2012. Sheriff J.B. Gardner said his department uses the page when it needs to get things out fast such as Amber Alerts and BOLOs (police term for “be on the lookout for” individuals or vehicles).

“It is a great way to get stuff out really fast. That is what is good about it. You can put it up so fast and so many people can see it,” Gardner said. “Young people will look at Facebook before they will do anything. That is just a part of life now, but to get information out, you have to have one. That is how people communicate now.”

At the start of the year, the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office worked in conjunction with HPD on a possible kidnapping after a note was found in the Quality Inn Hotel in Hillsville claiming to be from a missing female juvenile. Although the note was later found to be a hoax, it sparked an international investigation as authorities were looking into a man from Canada as a possible suspect.

“We got a lot of information back on Facebook really fast from that,” Gardner said. “That was a good way of doing that because it spread really fast.”

Among other new technological advances in law enforcement, Gardner said his department is taking advantage of a microscope that allows users to take digital photographs to document fingerprints at a moment’ s notice.

“The technology of it is absolutely amazing,” Gardner said. “You plug the microscope into the USB port and you can take it anywhere. You can document fingerprints to where you couldn’t before. DNA has also been exceptional for us, the ability to match things with different people.”

Bolen equated posting a wanted photo on Facebook to posting a wanted photo all throughout the region. For instance, when Rosier’s picture was posted on HPD’s Facebook page, agencies from Galax, Carroll County, Wythe County, Grayson County and other areas also picked up the photo and shared it on their respective pages.

“We posted it on our site and it just kind of snowballed from there. That pretty much limits a person’s ability to roam freely and it just broadens our scope,” Bolen said. “Facebook extends to cell phones now, so everybody has Facebook right at their fingertips at any time. So if we have a wanted poster and they see a suspect in the grocery store, they can scroll through and see if it matches up. We may get a tip off that and it puts us one step closer to catching somebody.”

Since launching its Facebook page, the Hillsville Police Department has used it for a multitude of reasons. From updating the public on water lines breaking to road conditions, and advising motorists of accidents, HPD has used Facebook to inform the public quickly on a variety of topics.

“It was one of my goals coming in to office. It is a dynamic site and we try to update it daily with new information,” Bolen said. “I think Facebook makes the long arm of the law even longer. In the short time we have had it up, we have had tremendous success with it. We want to use the page to not only help solve crimes, but to deter crimes. I hope as people see the success we are having it serves as a deterrent and makes people think, ‘I don’t want my picture all over Facebook for everybody to see.’”