Law enforcement using social media to solve cases, reach residents

With St. Augustine Police Department officials crediting tips coming in from social media as key in a identifying a person of interest in a spate of Halloween graffiti incidents, others are saying the Internet has changed the way law enforcement works some cases and interacts with residents.


“There is no question that social media helps us reach out to the community,” St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Cmdr. Chuck Mulligan told The Record on Monday.

“We post all kinds of cases where we are trying to identify suspects,” he said.

That was just what the city’s police department did after more than 80 pieces of graffiti showed up throughout downtown St. Augustine on Halloween night.

Authorities posted surveillance photos to the department’s Facebook page, taken from surveillance cameras, that captured a male and a female, dressed as members of the “Addams Family,” who were believed to have worked together to leave the graffiti.

St. Augustine Assistant Police Chief Anthony Cuthbert told The Record a week ago that detectives had received a number of tips and expected to make an arrest in the case in the coming days (so far no such arrest has been announced).

Mulligan said that often happens.

Numbers and information that he provided via email indicated that there had been at least five arrests in significant cases this year including one woman who was picked up by the U.S. Marshal Fugitive Task Force in Jacksonville after a tipster saw her warrant information posted to the Sheriff’s Office Facebook page. The tip, the email said, generated a $2,700 reward from Crime Stoppers of Northeast Florida, a service that allows callers to leave tips anonymously.

Since April of this year, Mulligan’s email said, Crime Stoppers has paid out $13,950 in rewards, about half of which came from tips generated either by the Sheriff’s Office web page or its Facebook page.

St. Augustine Police Department spokesman Ofc. Dee Brown didn’t have hard numbers to provide but said Tuesday that the Internet is good for reaching a targeted audience.

“I think social media reaches the younger generation,” Brown said. “I think print media is still important for 30 and above.”

Younger recipients or not, Mulligan said social media is important not only for helping solve cases, but also warning residents of crime trends like car burglaries and ongoing phone scams. Such items are routinely posted to the Sheriff’s Office Facebook page.

“In the past everything was face to face,” he said.

For “dynamic situations” like a breaking crime story, or even hurricane preparedness and recovery, social media posts, through Facebook and even Twitter, also allow quicker responses from authorities who can dispel rumors or misinformation if it crops up in subsequent posts from residents or even chatter they are receiving at call centers.

“We are able to work through a lot of problems on those forums,” Mulligan said.

But for major cases, events and arrests, Mulligan and others in the Sheriff’s Office community affairs bureau work to push information out through all channels, including news releases and news conferences as well as the Internet outlets.

“When we get these dynamic situations we will use all of these platforms,” he said.